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Early Preview: Microsoft Windows Phone's Cortana

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Last week I had the opportunity to get on a bus with the folks at Microsoft and check out a preview of the much ballyhooed Windows 8.1 for desktop and mobile. Oh, and then they introduced me to this stunning gal by the name of Cortana. Don't tell my wife, but I was love struck!

With Coachella on its way, Microsoft brought a coach bus down to LA for some schmoozing and while they had it they were picking up tech pundits and bloggers and giving us a preview of some very cool happenings. On board, they had various laptops, tablets and Windows phones. I was particularly enamored with the Lumia Icon, but that's another post for another time. There's so much that is coming to Windows Phone that I find compelling, but what I'm going to touch on for this article is their new voice assistant Cortana, which they hope will not only compete but best its industry rivals, Google Now and Apple's Siri.

Before we go forward, let's take a trip back. Back to the days of Windows Mobile and its voice controls. In 2003, Microsoft launched Microsoft Voice Command and it was awesome! At the time, there were other PDA's, then smartphones, which could handle voice dialing and a few other voice activated features but many required "training" and just weren't all that good. You had to over enunciate, speak artificially loud, any number of issues that had many users complaining. In mine and many other users' experience though, this wasn't the case with Microsoft Voice Command. It had no problems dialing names from my address book without being "trained," or reading my next appointment from my calendar with a simple voice request or even controlling my music. To this day, Windows Mobile is still one of my favorite mobile OS's (the Touch Pro 2 one of my favorite devices) and their voice command software still one of my favorite voice command systems so when I heard that Cortana was coming, I have to admit that I had very high hopes that we would see a return to Microsoft's former voice command glory. Early indications make it clear that I may not be disappointed!

Cortana, inspired by a character from Microsoft's wildly popular Halo video game series, is Windows Phone 8.1's new virtual personal digital assistant that is powered by Bing and whatever information you give it access to. That's one of the areas where it is very different from my current favorite personal digital assistant, Google Now. Cortana has a "notebook" function which allows you to choose what you want her to know about you. It is here that you can choose whether you want Cortana to have access to your email, calendar and other data points which will allow her to do things like remind you about upcoming appointments or tell you to leave earlier than you had planned if traffic is bad. Cortana does this by scanning your email account for relevant information, once you've given her access and unlike Google Now which only works with Gmail, Cortana works with any account which stores email on your phone except for Yahoo.

In an age of contextual and predictive search it was pretty cool to see that Cortana could hold her own with other services by doing things like taking location and person-based reminders. For example, you can tell Cortana, "Next time I'm talking to my wife, remind me to tell her that I already made the children's appointments for their sports physicals." Then, when you have an email, text, or phone call exchange Cortana will present you with your reminder. If you're actually searching for information, Cortana can help you with that too. In the images in the gallery above, you'll see that during the demo we did things like ask about the nutritional information for one serving of Poached Egg, weather and the monetary exchange rate. I will say that Cortana wasn't perfect, but there are two caveats... it learns you over time, and it is still very new being released in "beta" form.

Granted, the demo was pretty short so there's a lot more time I'll have to put into getting to know Cortana (or better yet, her getting to know me) before I can really tell you if Cortana is a game changer for Windows Phone or if it's too-little-too-late. For now what I can tell you is that immediately after that demo I requested a review unit to test out Cortana and the other updates that come with Windows Phone 8.1. Might she be enough to get me to switch from my device and OS of choice, the Note 3 running Android, I can't tell you right now. That said, I really want to find out!

Tshaka Armstrong Tech Ninja Tshaka Armstong writes about the latest technology and helping FOX 11 Viewers understand how to be safer, smarter users of the internet and their "gadgets. He's also one of our social media guys, helping guide the station's online efforts and social media outreach.
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