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Getting To Know Microsoft Cortana

What Microsoft's voice-activated technology currently lacks in polish, it definitely makes up for in personality.

The spunky personal digital assistant from Microsoft, Cortana, is about to hit the big time. Introduced on the relatively small platform of Windows Phone, Cortana is now cast in a prominent role in Windows 10, Office and Dynamics CRM. That global desktop platform takes Cortana beyond me-too status into groundbreaking UI territory.

As a regular Cortana user for the last few months since upgrading to Windows Phone 8.1, I can say Cortana has a lot of promise as a natural spoken language interface for Microsoft ecosystem technologies.

Using Cortana is a little like playing "Zork" and other early interactive fiction computer games. That blinking cursor invited you to type anything you wanted and encouraged creativity, but the game only recognized what it had been specifically programmed to recognize.

The same with Cortana -- the audible "ba-doop" prompt and playful ring-inside-a-ring visual invite you to ask any question, and the voice transcription is nothing short of amazing. Yet more than half the time, the response, to my questions at least, is a Bing query result you have to read rather than a spoken response. Usually the Bing responses are pretty good, or as good as the Web can provide at that moment.

With Cortana, you're always aware you're not interacting with an artificial intelligence. You're interacting with software that's been written to fool you into thinking you're interacting with artificial intelligence, which itself -- by definition -- is supposed to fool you into thinking you're dealing with an autonomous personality.

That's not to say Cortana is without apparent personality. The other day, I wasn't sure what I wanted to listen to, and I asked Cortana, "Surprise me." "Boo," she replied. To acknowledge the biggest competitor in the room, the Apple Siri can be funny, too (or I should say the programmers behind Siri can be funny). My wife has an iPhone and on a lark tried addressing Siri as Cortana. I'll just say Siri hit that lob back with spin.

In the car with Bluetooth, Cortana is incredibly useful. I regularly task the phone through Cortana to simultaneously run GPS directions and play music, and Cortana handles incoming phone calls and texts with hands-free aplomb. The ability to create appointments is handy for work, and Cortana does a good job with things like noticing airline confirmation e-mails and tracking flights in the background.

What remains to be seen is how useful Cortana will be on the PC. The early version released in late January is really too incomplete and buggy to tell, but Microsoft is hard at work improving it.

Imagine, for example, if Cortana is integrated into the command line. I like the idea of coming to the end of the day and saying, "Hey, Cortana, install those updates, then shut down and be back online at 8 a.m. when I get to my desk tomorrow." That would be cool.

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About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.