Posey's Tips & Tricks

3 Reasons Why Microsoft's Cortana Matters

Microsoft's "personal assistant" feature may drastically change the way we interact with both Windows OS and Windows Server in the future. Here's why.

Of all of the new features that are being introduced in Windows Phone 8.1, none has received more attention than Cortana. I have to admit that I have had a ball playing around with Cortana on my phone. Although some might consider Cortana to be a novelty, I think that it could be a clear indication of where Microsoft is headed in the future.

For those who might not be familiar with Cortana, it is the Windows Phone 8.1 counterpart to Apple's Siri. You can interact with Cortana verbally, or you can type your query on the phone's keyboard.

On the surface, Cortana doesn't really seem like anything new. After all, Apple and Google have had personal assistants integrated into their phones for quite some time. However, there are three things about Cortana that really caught my attention.

The first thing that caught my attention was that the speech recognition feature seems to work very well. Microsoft has been experimenting with speech recognition for quite some time, and there are a number of current-generation Microsoft products that use speech recognition engines. For example, the Windows operating system has a speech recognition engine built in. Exchange Server 2013 uses speech recognition as a part of its unified messaging feature. Even Microsoft Sync (which is a feature found in some Ford cars) uses speech recognition.

The thing that all of these products have in common however, is that the speech recognition isn't all that reliable. With Cortana however, it seems that Microsoft has finally made speech recognition practical. I think that it is only a matter of time before the Cortana speech recognition engine makes its way into other products.

The second thing that caught my attention about Cortana was that Cortana uses natural language queries. I don't have to worry about memorizing commands. I simply tell my phone what I want it to do, and Cortana does it. This is a really nice change. When Microsoft introduced Xbox One, they made it so that the operating system and various games could use speech recognition. Even so, you have to stick to using specific commands when verbally interacting with a game. Cortana is the total opposite of that. It is smart enough to figure out what you are trying to accomplish without forcing you to memorize commands.

The third thing that really got my attention when I started using Cortana was the way in which it works with the cloud. Much of Cortana's intelligence is based on Bing queries that happen behind-the-scenes. There are two reasons why this is important.

First, Cortana's reliance on Bing means that Cortana can get smarter over time. Any time that Microsoft wants to improve Cortana, they can theoretically make changes to the backend without forcing customers to update their phones.

The other reason why Cortana's reliance on Bing is important is because it means that Cortana can understand some fairly complex queries. To give you a more concrete example, I was having a bit of trouble finding a good meal well on a recent business trip. Just for kicks, I asked Cortana to show me highly rated Mexican restaurants within walking distance. Much to my surprise, Cortana gave me exactly what I had asked for. Think about that for a moment. I had essentially performed a voice search and had my results filtered by food type, rating, and geographic proximity.

At the beginning of this article, I said that I thought that Cortana pointed to the direction that Microsoft will be headed in the future. So what do I mean by that? Well, as I pointed out there are a number of Microsoft products that use speech recognition and I think that the speech recognition is going to get a lot better. But that's just the beginning.

There are already rumors that Cortana is going to be a part of Windows 9. Imagine what it would be like to have a Cortana-like interface on a desktop computer or a tablet. If Cortana truly is extensible on the backend then its functionality would not just be limited to the types of things that can be done on Windows Phone. Cortana could become a tool for interacting with the operating system. For example, a user might ask Cortana to check to see if the Windows Firewall is enabled.

It might be a stretch, but imagine what it could be like if a Cortana-like interface ever showed up on Windows Server. An administrator might be able to verbally tell the server to deploy a role or feature as opposed to having to work through a wizard. In the case of a Hyper-V environment, an administrator might be able to instruct Cortana to perform a live migration of a specific virtual machine.

I think that in time we will all be surprised by what the Cortana engine can do. Imagination might prove to be the only limit to what is possible.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 19-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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