Microsoft Cortana (UI)

The Windows giant Microsoft will be introducing its upcoming Windows Phone 8.1 update at the Build conference next month.

With it comes Cortana, a Microsoft-branded personal digital assistant that includes functionality provided by Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google Now voice-activated assistants.

It also has a few nice features not provided by Apple so perhaps competition from Microsoft (and Google) will prompt the iPhone maker to roll out new Siri features sooner than later. The Verge has an exclusive look at Cortana’s interface and some of its features, here are the highlights…

Author Tom Warren writes that Cortana, which got its name after the Halo game series, will replace the built-in Bing search functionality on Windows Phone 8.1.

Cortana will take the form of a circular animated icon instead of a female character. Cortana will animate when it’s speaking or thinking, forming a personality not dissimilar to Apple’s Siri.

Here’s what the settings UI looks like.

Microsoft Cortana (Settings)

The circular icon animates when Cortana is speaking or thinking.

Like Google Now, Cortana will be able to analyze a user’s email messages for meeting schedules, flight numbers, package delivery information and more, along with push notifications for these items. And like Siri, users will be able to tell Cortana how they want to be addressed.

“Cortana can call users by their name or nicknames like ‘Master Chief’ after they’re enabled in the settings,” explains Warren.

One of the headline features of Cortana is its ability to save information and data in a Notebook system, allowing the digital assistant to access stuff like location data, behaviors, personal information, reminders and contact information. Users can also tap Notebook to manage what information is shared with Cortana.

The voice assistant will learn more about users, optionally storing personal information like home and work locations in the Notebook.

From The Verge’s first-look article dated last month:

Cortana will also react to messages or emails that contain phrases like “let’s meet tomorrow at 8PM” and ask if you’d like to set up reminders or calendar entries. Cortana can also provide guidance on weather, stocks, directions, appointments, and music that’s contextual based on location and other data.

As Cortana is a digital assistant, it will also be able to manage a do-not-disturb feature, similar to iOS, that’s designed to mute notifications. An “inner circle” of contacts will allow Cortana to manage notifications and phone calls during “quiet hours” when notifications are muted.

And lastly, Cortana too will pull information from Microsoft’s own web services like Bing, in addition to third-party data providers such as Foursquare for location data (which helps explain why Microsoft recently invested $15 million in Foursquare).

Microsoft is expected to unveil the feature alongside a developer preview of Windows Phone 8.1 at the upcoming Build conference, which runs April 2-4, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

I’m thinking Apple will want to double down on Siri now that both Google and Microsoft are giving its own personal assistant a good run for her money.