Microsoft has packed a wealth of features into the Windows Phone platform. It has live tiles that keep you constantly privy to what's happening, notifications on the lock screen, and even Office integration. But it still lacks one crucial element that has helped both Android and iOS rise to the top: an all-knowing personal digital assistant.
Let's face it, Windows Phone 8's current offering pales in comparison to Siri and Google Now. There's some light at the end of the tunnel, though: Recent rumors suggest that Windows Phone 8.1 will be unveiled at the Build conference in April, and that a key feature will be a new voice assistant, code-named Cortana. You know, like Master Chief's AI sidekick in the Halo franchise. In fact, rumors have it that the new assistant will even be voiced by Jen Taylor, the popular voice actress who has played Cortana in all the Halo games.
The service is expected to do more than respond to simple voice commands. And although we don't have much concrete info to go on, we know the bar Microsoft has to clear. If Cortana is to be more than just Microsoft's version of what Apple and Google did two years ago, it will need to deliver big in the following six key areas.
Personalized answers to common questions
The first thing I do when I get up every morning is ask Google Now what the weather is going to be like when I go to work. When I need to figure out what's on the docket for the day, I simply ask Google to bring up my calendar. And then, if I need driving directions home, I can ask Google to "take me home." Siri provides similar capabilities.
That's a perfect example of what people want to use their smartphones for. Microsoft's new voice assistant has to take the data on your phone (appointments, location, contacts), in the cloud (on your SkyDrive account), and from its services (Bing search, weather, traffic) and combine them all to give you simple, plainspoken personal answers.
Microsoft should consider borrowing from Apple's Siri, too. It's interactive, and half the fun of using Siri is hoping that it will play along with you. As the fan-made mock-up below shows, personalization doesn't just mean displaying information that's relevant to you, but making you feel as if the phone is someone you're having a conversation with.
Other mock-ups suppose that users want more than just voice commands and search. They want to track diets and get recipes. They want a Wolfram Alpha for their life.
Microsoft could even get a leg up on its competitors by utilizing the Data Sense feature that's integrated into Windows Phone 8. Imagine if you could just ask your phone, "Hey, how am I doing on data?" or "How many minutes do I have left this month?" without digging for that information in the Settings menus.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.