Cortana is the codename for the newly announced intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator for Windows Phone 8.1. The technology is expected to be added to Windows 8.x and the Xbox One in the future. It builds off of Microsoft’s current voice technology called TellMe, which was purchased by Microsoft in 2009.
The name ‘Cortana’ comes from the fictional, artificially intelligent (AI) character in the Halo video game series. It was first spotted in June 2013 in the Windows Phone Central forums, appearing as ‘zCortana’ from a developer device that was accidentally sold to a non-Microsoft employee.
Naming and Voicing Controversy
Currently, the name Cortana is reserved for the AI in Microsoft’s Halo gaming series. While there is a desire to call Microsoft’s next-gen personal assistant Cortana as an official name, it’s not clear that the company will do so, due to numerous marketing and trademark concerns.
However, as of April 2014, it is looking more likely that Cortana will be the official name.
Likewise, an unconfirmed report claimed that Jen Taylor, who currently voices Cortana in Halo, will also voice the knowledge navigator for Windows Phone 8.1. However, this has yet to be verified as accurate.
Look and Feel
The current look of Cortana is both futuristic and minimalist, being represented as an orb with animation. From one sourced description:
“The personality of Cortana is currently represented by a circle graphic that expresses what it's doing (searching, identifying music à la the current Bing music listener built into Windows Phone, etc.) by various animations like spinning, flipping, etc. …more animations [have] come in over time, and the color is based on your theme color.”
Cortana will be able to integrate with third-party apps via a new API introduced by Microsoft at their 2014 Build conference. For instance, users can say "Foursquare...checkin" and the personal assistant will launch the Foursquare app and bring up locations around you to choose for checking in.
Cortana will also be able to set reminders, track your flights, tell you the weather, send messages and answer questions. All searching on Windows Phone 8.1, including in Internet Explorer, is handled through Cortana, which itself is powered by Bing.
Various sections of Cortana can also be pinned to a user's Start screen, including Weather, Reminders and News for quick access. The app, upon launching, can optionally deliver a 'Daily Glance', which includes your weather, traffic and headlines.
Finally, another change is how users launch Cortana. The app is now initiated via the Search key. Users will no longer have to hold down the Start key to launch the voice assistant.