Four years after Apple acquired Siri and two years after Google introduced its "predictive search" assistant Google Now (along with its voice interactions), Microsoft is finally bringing an intelligent assistant -- Cortana -- to market.
Gadget site The Verge obtained some leaked screenshots of Cortana (see right), which is supposed to launch on Lumia devices with Windows 8.1. The question is whether Cortana will help Microsoft and Windows Phones differentiate and advance or whether they will simply be a kind of late entrant and "me too" product from Redmond.
Cortana is supposed to operate across platforms and screens, including on the PC and Xbox. Derived from a character in the game Halo, Cortana was at one time going to offer an "embodied" female avatar. While that's still possible the screenshots leaked suggest that Cortana will not have a face or a body (which makes "her" more family friendly). It's also likely now, given the "baggage" associated with the Halo character that "she" won't even be named Cortana when she reaches the market in April.
The Microsoft intelligent assistant will reportedly offer Google Now style anticipatory search and personalization features as well as Siri-like interaction. For Microsoft users (Outlook, Windows OS) Cortana may offer a rich experience but the company lacks some of the personal and search data that enables Google Now to function the way that it does. It has been speculated that for this reason, Microsoft invested $15 million in Foursquare last month in part to gain access to its location data and content to help feed Cortana.
We'll have to wait for the ultimate product to assess whether it offers new depth or a better assistant experience. Siri helped create (or more appropriately name) the market but has since not kept pace with increasing user demands. Google voice search and Google Now are highly useful but not entirely "coherent" as an overall user experience.
If Microsoft can in fact offer a "next generation" intelligent assistant it may have found a tool to drive Windows Phone sales as well re-stake a claim as a technology leader.
Update: According to demo video above from UnleashThePhones Cortana will ask a series of questions to try and develop a personalized user profile to start. The more data that Cortana has over time the more personalized and "predictive" Microsoft can make the system.