Microsoft is taking aim at Siri, and not only in its TV ads for Windows tablets.
The Redmond, Wash.-based software company is reportedly preparing a voice assistant, code-named Cortana, for Windows Phone. The name should be familiar to fans of the Halo video game series on the Xbox. Cortana is a holographic AI construct that figures prominently in the game's universe.
Now, instead of battling galactic threats, Cortana is being tasked with giving Windows Phone voice-enabled capabilities.
ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley reported on Sept. 12 that zCortana, an app first spied in a Windows Phone 8.1 "Blue" leak in June, is gaining renewed attention as buzz builds over the rumored addition of a personal assistant to Windows Phone in early 2014. She wrote that the "Cortana app (with the 'z' indicating it was a test build) is central to what Microsoft is doing to compete with Apple's Siri and Google Now."
Apple thrust mobile personal assistant technology into the spotlight when Siri made its debut on the iPhone 4S. Lauded for its technical innovation at launch, Siri was also criticized for its hit-or-miss real-world performance and penchant for humorous gaffes. Siri also sparked security concerns, causing IBM to boot the tech from its campuses.
Siri, which also appears on the iPad, continues to improve as more users interact with it and Apple tweaks the feature. In an example of the sometimes tangled rivalries between tech giants, Siri will default to Bing (instead of Google) in the upcoming release of iOS 7.
Google, meanwhile, has been steadily refining its mobile OS voice control capabilities in an effort to make them an integral and seamless part of the Android experience. The strategy is already paying off according to early impressions of the company's well-received Moto X.
Like its Halo counterpart, Cortana "will be able to learn and adapt," added Foley, thanks to "machine-learning technology and the 'Satori' knowledge repository powering Bing." Satori, which means "understanding" in Japanese, anchors Bing Snapshot, a feature that enhances search results by delivering in-context facts and associated content that is pulled from Wikipedia and social media.
Cortana won't be confined to Windows Phone. The technology will influence a major portion of the Windows ecosystem, suggests Foley. "Cortana is core to the makeover of the entire 'shell'—the core services and experience—of the future versions of Windows Phone, Windows and the Xbox One operating systems, from what I've heard from my contacts," she wrote.
Hence, it's unlikely that Microsoft will unload the search engine that powers Cortana, despite repeated calls to exit a market dominated by Google. "Bing is more than a Web search engine; it's also the indexing and graphing technology that will be powering Microsoft's operating systems, too," speculated Foley.
Microsoft isn't the only company with sci-fi inspired voice assistant technology. Google's natural language processing component for Voice Actions went by the code name Majel. Majel is short for Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, an actress and wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. She played Nurse Chapel in the original 1960s series and provided the voice for Federation computers in several incarnations of the show and feature films.