Watch out, Siri. Someone wants your job.
Since it debuted on the iPhone 4S three years ago, Apple’s Siri technology has been synonymous with the concept of a virtual personal assistant. But now comes Cortana, an intelligent assistant from Microsoft that’s supposed to be much like Siri, only better.
Cortana is one of the key features of Windows Phone 8.1, the latest update to Microsoft’s smartphone software now beginning to show up in new devices. The feature is something like a combination of Siri and Google Now, the intelligent-assistant technology built into Android.
Like Siri, Cortana can send text messages, search for information on the Web and launch applications in response to users’ inquiries and statements. As with Siri, users generally don’t need to use specific commands, but can talk naturally, as if they were speaking to a real person.
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But unlike Siri, Cortana can also act like Google Now, providing information unprompted by a particular inquiry. Looking at your calendar, Cortana can tell you when you need to leave for a crosstown meeting in order to make it on time. And by knowing your favorite sports team, it can keep you updated on the results of its latest games without your asking for the score.
Microsoft has designed Cortana so individual users can customize it to a much greater degree than they can Siri or Google Now. Inside a settings area, users can view and edit the information Cortana knows about them, such as the name of their spouse or their office address.
Cortana, which, like Siri, allows you to assign it either a male or female voice, also knows some pretty cool tricks. Like Google Now, but unlike Siri, Cortana shows what it hears you saying as you speak. This feedback can reassure you Cortana is listening and understands what you are saying.
As with Siri, you can use Cortana to set reminders and can specify that you want to be reminded to do them at a particular time or when you arrive at a specific place. But with Cortana, you can also ask to be reminded to do things when you interact with particular people.
So you can ask Cortana to remind you to wish your mother a happy anniversary the next time you talk to her. Then when you send a text to your mother or receive a call from her, Cortana will flash a message on the screen reminding you about the anniversary.
Cortana has another advantage over Siri. Microsoft is allowing app developers to create custom commands for Cortana, something Apple does not allow for Siri. So in the future, you might be able to ask Cortana to start playing the next episode of “Breaking Bad” that you haven’t seen through Netflix
By contrast, Siri only recognizes the commands Apple has plugged into it. Apple hasn’t allowed app developers to tap into Siri other than for dictation.
But for now, Siri is a lot more capable personal assistant than is Cortana. Either will help me find nearby restaurants, but only Siri will make a reservation for me. Cortana, at best, will direct me to the OpenTable app.
If I tell Siri I want to see “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” it will list show times at local theaters and even let me buy tickets. Tell Cortana the same thing and it will simply do a Web search on the movie title.
Cortana also has trouble with sports. It was befuddled when I asked, “Who won last night’s hockey game?” and “How many points did Tony Parker score in his last game?” Siri, by contrast, answered both questions.
There are other things that Cortana can’t yet do that Siri can. It can’t set a timer, nor can it post updates to Facebook or Twitter, or send an email message.
And Cortana has other little annoyances. One is the way you launch the feature, a two-step process. You press the phone’s wake button and then long-press its search button.