Microsoft has confirmed that Windows 8.1 for phones will incorporate a personal digital assistant facility somewhat similar to Apple's Siri software -- and that it will be more than a little familiar to fans of the Halo franchise.
Writing on the Windows Phone blog, Microsoft's Joe Belfiore outlined what users will be able to expect from their new digital companion Cortana, authentically voiced by the voice actor from the Halo series Jen Taylor. There's some ambitious plans in the works, but if they work well, they could prove to be a significant step forward in digital assistant software.
Apple's Siri is capable of knowing some basic information about you -- it knows your name based on your address book entry, for example, and will refer to you by a nickname if you set one or tell it to "Call me [name]." (This is an excellent means of trolling your iDevice-toting friends who leave their phone unattended for a few moments, incidentally.) But Cortana is apparently set to take things a little further by actually getting to know you -- beginning with how to pronounce your name properly and moving on to your own personal interests, your "inner circle" of friends and the hours of the day you prefer to set aside as "quiet time."
The tech driving this is based on real-world practice -- Cortana's developers interviewed a number of real-world personal assistants and discovered that a common technique used by many of them was to keep a notebook of their boss' interests, preferences and other pieces of relevant information. Cortana does the same as she learns about you; a digital notebook gradually populates with the things you're interested in, the people with whom you interact most frequently and any other information you choose to share with the software.
Ultimately the intention is for Cortana to provide a convenient means for you to personalize your smartphone experience; you can use her to put your phone in a "do not disturb" mode during "quiet time," but allow members of your "inner circle" to break through in case they have something important to share. Your personal interests will be highlighted when you use Microsoft services such as Bing -- though Microsoft is keen to note that you're in control of what Cortana knows about you, for those with interests you'd rather keep quiet -- and relevant information will be retrieved as and when you need it. For example, if Cortana knows you have an upcoming trip, she'll share flight information with you along with an estimate of how much time you should allow to get to the airport bearing traffic in mind.
Belfiore also claims that Cortana has her own personality and you'll be able to carry on simple conversations with her, presumably similar to how Siri can respond to certain hidden words or phrases. He didn't give any specific examples, but he quite rightly points out there will almost certainly be some videos available online shortly after the system launches.
Windows Phone 8.1 is set to launch "in the coming months," with those registered to Microsoft's Developer Preview Program getting access early this month.