Microsoft May Be Readying a Siri-like Virtual Assistant Called ‘Cortana’

It'll reportedly have a Google Now-like ability to anticipate what you need.

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Siri and Google Now are both key features on the iPhone and Android, respectively, so it’s no surprise that Microsoft is thought to be preparing a virtual assistant of its own.

Both WMPowerUser and ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley have put pieces together from various leaks, rumors and public statements by Microsoft. It seems that this assistant will apparently be named “Cortana” — a nod to the Master Chief’s AI sidekick in the hit Xbox game Halo — and would allegedly attempt to leapfrog Siri and Google Now in capabilities.

Right now the details are pretty vague; the clearest idea of what Microsoft might want to do comes from soon-to-be-retired CEO Steve Ballmer, in a memo from July (emphasis mine):

Our UI will be deeply personalized, based on the advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world. Our shell will natively support all of our essential services, and will be great at responding seamlessly to what people ask for, and even anticipating what they need before they ask for it.

That doesn’t sound like a huge leap compared to Google Now, the virtual assistant that’s built into Android phones. Google Now basically looks at your Gmail account, calendar, web searches and location, and serves up information that it thinks you might need.

It can tell you when to leave for your next appointment, or bring up your boarding pass when you get to the airport. It keeps you in the loop for your favorite sports teams, and tells you about breaking news for topics you’ve searched for in the past. Compared to Siri, Google Now is more about anticipating what you need, though you can also use Google voice search to get Siri-like spoken answers to certain queries.

Still, I’m not one to complain about another company trying to do a similar thing, especially because Google is not particularly interested in bringing its services to Windows Phone. If Microsoft can provide an equal or better service, it’ll be all the more beneficial for Windows Phone users — and presumably Windows users down the line.

When could Cortana arrive on Windows Phone? That’s not so clear either. Although signs of Cortana have reportedly shown up in leaks for the next version of Windows Phone, Foley notes that Microsoft executives don’t expect this kind of assistant to be ready until somewhere between 2014 and 2016. Meanwhile, Siri and Google Now will continue to evolve and grow, so the clock’s ticking for Microsoft.