Cortana-like Personalization Comes to Microsoft Bing

Bing provides a window into how Cortana, Microsoft's new search and digital assistant technology, gets to know users.

Currently, only developers can tinker with Cortana, Microsoft's voice-enabled digital assistant technology for Windows Phone 8.1. But the general public can get a sampling of the personalization features that the company has in store with a new update to Bing.

Cortana, named after a major AI character in the "Halo" video game series, is Microsoft's answer to Apple Siri and Google Now. A highlight of this year's Build developer conference, the Bing-powered technology impressed attendees with its context-aware capabilities and deep personalization options.

A few hiccups aside, Cortana breezed through most spoken and typed requests by keynote speaker Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of Windows Phone, during an on-stage presentation. Belfiore was able to search for information both online and stored on the phone and set reminders, complete with dependencies based on other actions, like a Skype call. Another key Cortana feature is machine learning, which enables the technology to surface critical information, such as an itinerary sent via email, and add it to a user's calendar, for example.

Now Bing users can catch an early glimpse of what Cortana has to offer when Windows Phone 8.1 is released later this year.

"One of the things that makes Cortana so helpful is her ability to learn about your preferences and interests," said Chen Fang, Bing program manager, in a blog post. Cortana owes the ability to cater to users' lifestyles and work habits to Microsoft's search technology. "It is the Bing platform that makes this possible, earned through years of experience doing web search," he asserted.

Starting this week, Microsoft is rolling out personalized "cards" that appear near the bottom of the Bing homepage. Users can customize the cards according to their interests on the settings screens.

A new menu option labeled "Interests" appears alongside the History and Rewards categories. Current interests include Weather, Traffic, Travel Planner, Headline News and Daily Glance, a consolidated view of the weather, commuting information and news headlines.

Microsoft plans to grow the number of categories that it offers from the current handful. Chen said his group is working on rolling out more interests "to continue making your Bing experience more personal and relevant."

Users can customize their news topics and sign up for recommendations on restaurants and local hotspots (the non-WiFi kind). They can also opt to turn each interest on or off, set notifications, and sync them between devices and Bing apps.

"As long as you're signed in, Bing will remember your interests and notify you, as appropriate, across a range of Bing-powered Microsoft services, such as Cortana and the Bing Sports app, for example," wrote Chen.

While the anti-Google Scroogle campaign has been silently scrapped, according to reports, Microsoft continues to stress that the company takes user privacy seriously. In a related FAQ, Microsoft states that "currently Bing doesn't use information about your interests to send you targeted ads."

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...