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Beyond Siri: Microsoft’s Cortana aims to do much more than today’s personal digital assistants

by David Needle

September 13 2013

Is this Halo character also the face of Cortana, the personal digital assistant Microsoft is developing?
Is this Halo character also the face of Cortana, the personal digital assistant Microsoft is developing?

While it's gone a long way towards popularizing the concept of a personal digital assistant, Apple's Siri is far from the first attempt at such a service. 

Ever since the "HAL" computer in the 1968 movie 2001, there have been attempts at developing a friendly digital assistant or kind of online butler, ready to serve and anticipate your needs. 

Microsoft, for one, was well ahead of Apple’s Siri with its much-ridiculed Microsoft Bob, introduced in 1995. Bob featured animated characters designed to help you navigate Windows and various apps, but users found Bob more annoying than helpful.

Still, Microsoft hasn’t given up on digital assistants. A product under development called Cortana aims to be more integrated and go well beyond the range of services Siri offers. (The Cortana name comes from an artificially intelligent character in Microsoft's "Halo" series). 

Cortana will have the ability to learn and adapt; and will use Microsoft Bing, Tellme speech technology, natural language software and social graph software to tap into every services and experience area of the device, according to a report by DailyTech.

"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," MIcrosoft CEO Steve Ballmer said back in July. "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."

However, it not clear at all how far along the Cortana project is or when it might debut. Daily Tech says it could be as early as 2014, while anonymous Microsoft executives say sometime between 2014 and 2016.

Bing officials have said Microsoft will release Cortana along with a "revolutionary" new device to show off what it can do. It's hard to say what that device might be, but the answer may be related to Microsoft's blockbuster purchase of Nokia earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates said earlier this year that he's confident something like Bob will retun. "We tried a little personality that was definitely premature. I think it will re-emerge, but perhaps with a bit more sophistication.” 

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David Needle is Editor of TabTimes and based in Silicon Valley
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