Posey's Tips & Tricks

Why Windows 9 Needs Cortana

The virtual personal assistant feature in Windows Phone 8.1 would be a perfect fit for the next Microsoft OS -- with some tweaks.

A couple weeks ago I was talking to a friend and casually mentioned Cortana during the conversation. Cortana, of course, is the personal assistant for Windows Phone 8.1, but my friend had never heard of it. When my friend asked what Cortana was, my wife chimed in and jokingly told him that Cortana is the name of my mistress. She quickly told him the truth, but added that I spend so much time using Cortana that she might as well be my mistress.

I have to admit that when the developer preview release for Windows Phone 8.1 first became available, Cortana wasn't something that I could really see myself using. It just seemed like more of a novelty than something that could really be useful. Oh, how wrong I was! Over time, I have found Cortana to be extremely useful, and I find myself using it constantly. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the rumors are true and Cortana will be a part of the next Microsoft OS, code-named "Threshold" (often referred to as "Windows 9").

Of course, this raises the big question of how Cortana could be useful on a PC. I will be the first to admit that not all of the functionality of Cortana translates well to a PC environment. For example, Cortana on Windows Phone 8.1 is able to provide location-based reminders. For instance, I recently told Cortana to remind me to buy some SD cards the next time I was at Target. Sure enough, I was in Target over the weekend and Cortana dutifully reminded me that I needed some SD memory.

I love that particular functionality on Windows Phone, but it won't work very well for desktop PCs. After all, I'm probably not going to be using my desktop PC at a shopping center any time soon. Even so, there are plenty of other things Cortana can do that would work really well on a PC.

For example, Cortana could remind you of things that you wanted to tell someone next time you send them an e-mail. It could also schedule appointments, perform Web searches, send messages and even help you figure out where to go for lunch. If done right, Cortana could be extremely useful on PCs, as well as tablets.

If Microsoft does choose to include Cortana in Windows 9, I hope that from a functionality standpoint the company models it after Windows Phone 8.1 and not after Xbox One. Now, I know what some of you are thinking: "Cortana doesn't exist on Xbox One (except as a character in the Halo games)." But here me out.

One of the things that Microsoft did with Xbox One is to make speech control a bigger part of the experience. You can use speech to perform various functions within the interface, and there are some functions within various games that can be controlled by voice.

So why did I say that I hope that the Windows 9 Cortana doesn't take inspiration from Xbox One? The reason is simple. When the Kinect interface is enabled, Xbox One is constantly listening for verbal commands. That's fine for a video game console that's set up in my house, but it would be a bad idea on a PC or a tablet. Let me give you a couple examples why.

First, picture a large office environment in which there are a bunch of users working from Windows 9 PCs. Now, pretend that one of the users tells Cortana to open Internet Explorer. If Cortana is designed to constantly listen for commands, then every PC within an ear shot is going to respond to the user's command.

Here's another example: Google Glass also accepts voice commands. I recently read an amusing article written by someone who's been having a great time hijacking his buddy's Google Glass. He simply sneaks up behind his friend and gives Google Glass a command. Often times the command involves doing a Web search for something really obscene, disgusting or embarrassing.

I think Microsoft got the Cortana interface right on Windows Phone 8.1. You can talk to Cortana, but you have to tap an icon first. You also have the option of typing whatever you want to ask Cortana.

Only time will tell whether Cortana will be a part of the next Windows OS. So far, the Windows Phone 8.1 implementation of Cortana has been getting some great reviews, so I'm hopeful Microsoft will go ahead and build Cortana into the next version of Windows and into an eventual update for Xbox One.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-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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