It’s been nearly three years since Apple unveiled Siri on its iPhone 4s, and Microsoft finally has its answer to the digital assistant: Cortana. Named after a virtual character in the company’s popular Halo gaming franchise, the feature is powered by Bing and offers a mix of Google Now-ish and Siri-like characteristics.
We first got a glimpse of Cortana earlier this year courtesy of a developer leak, but Microsoft officially unveiled her this morning at its Build Developer Conference in San Francisco. The assistant will ship alongside several other new features in the Windows Phone 8.1 update, expected to launch in the next few months…
How does it work? Cortana can be triggered either by an assigned Live Tile on your Windows Phone home screen, or via your device’s built-in search button. From there, it works pretty much like any other digital assistant, capable of setting alarms, searching the web, finding nearby restaurants and other standard affair.
Cortana also has a few unique traits as well, such as contextual reminders that will remind you of something when you’re talking to a designated person, and the ability to add shows to your queue on Hulu Plus. Microsoft has provided an API for third-party apps to interface with—but to what degree, we don’t know yet.
Here’s a video overview of Windows Phone 8.1 (Cortana comes in at 1:50 mark):
Other 8.1 improvements include a new Action Center, similar to iOS 7’s Control and Notification Centers, a refreshed start screen and an updated Windows Phone Store. Skype has also been integrated in new ways this time around, and the WP keyboard has been revamped with support for ‘wordflow’ gesture-based typing.
Microsoft says the update will be rolling out to Windows Phone users in the “next few months” and will start shipping on new devices later this month. On that front, 3 new Nokia Lumia phones were also unveiled today, including the Lumia 930 which features a 1080p display, a 2.2Ghz CPU, 2GB of RAM and a 20MP camera.
Overall, Windows Phone 8.1 seems like a solid update and early reviews of Cortana have been glowing. It would seem that Apple and Google have their work cut out for them. Apple is up first, with its World Wide Developer Conference to likely take place in early June, and Google will follow with its I/O Conference later that month.
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