Image: Microsoft/Xbox.com

Windows Phone's 'Cortana' will challenge Siri and Google Now for smart assistant supremacy

In the battle for hearts, minds, and intelligent helpfulness, Microsoft plans to wage war against Siri and Google Now with the help of the most full-featured digital assistant ever imagined.

No, not Microsoft Bob—stop your snickering—but Cortana, the faithful, blue-tinged AI that helped the Master Chief win the war against the Covenant hordes in the legendary Halo series of video games.

Early leaks of the impending Windows Phone 8.1 update have featured an app dubbed “zCortana,” and according to ZDNetWPCentral, and The Verge, Cortana is the codename for a voice-controlled, adaptable digital assistant—kind of like Siri, but smarter.

A Windows Phone 8.1 build acquired by The Verge shows that Microsoft is already testing Cortana’s ability to pull in notifications, weather and location info, calendar details, and more, and “she” also has access to the phone’s Bluetooth capabilities.

Bing’s Satori engine—a massive knowledge database, named after the first step on the Buddhist path to enlightenment—is said to be the brains behind Cortana.

Big Bing brains and big Windows things

Senior Microsoft officials have been hinting that just such an assistant is inbound for a while now. In his memo announcing the sweeping Microsoft reorganization earlier this year, CEO Steve Ballmer wrote the following:

Our machine-learning infrastructure will understand people’s needs and what is available in the world, and will provide information and assistance. We will be great at anticipating needs in people’s daily routines and providing insight and assistance when they need it.

Bill Gates then talked up smart-assistant technology at a Microsoft Research Faculty Summit mere days later.

And while the first hints of Cortana are appearing in the mobile equivalent of Windows 8.1, she might not stop there. ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley claims Cortana will eventually be central to the core experience uniting future versions of Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox.

So when will we see Microsoft’s Siri clone? The Verge says Cortana could be included in the Windows Phone 8.1 update rumored to land early next year, along with a much-needed notification center and other tweaks.

In the meantime, I’d recommend reading PCWorld’s in-depth look at Bing’s Satori engine to get a feel for the tech behind Cortana—or just playing a few rounds of Halo: Spartan Assault.

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