Cortana–a voice activated artificial intelligence that you might know better as Microsoft’s Siri–is coming to iOS and Android next month. Cortana is brilliant. In fact, she’s in many ways a lot smarter than Siri. And she’s probably more witty, too.
But no matter how smart or funny she is, Cortana won’t become the de facto voice assistant for your iPhone or Android device. Because while Cortana may be very fluent at speaking your language, Siri is fully integrated with iOS; not only is it always listening, it’s able to access parts of the phone Cortana simply can’t.
The Real Appeal Of Voice
When you look at scenarios where voice search has an advantage over traditional UIs, it’s typically does three big things in concert to transform itself into that magical personal assistant interface that Apple teased back in 1987.
First, it can allow you to find extremely specific information quickly. Why go to the trouble of opening weather app when you can just say, ask aloud, “What’s the weather?” and get an answer? You could call this magic omniscience.
Second, it can allow you to do extremely specific things quickly. Yes, this is very closely related to but distinguished from the first point. Say you want to send a text message. Whereas a folder or menu based UIs may make you click into your address book, tap a name, tap that you want to send them a text, and then type your text, Siri allows you to say “Send a message to Mom saying ‘hello,'” no digging through kingdom, phylum, genus, species of your operating system required. This is not a shortcut to information, but a shortcut to action. You could call this magic omnipotence.
Third, it’s always listening, which makes something accessible from any part of the OS. Whereas a traditional Google search requires you to load google.com, type in a search query, and hit “search,” a voice command could be eavesdropping from any app. You might not realize it, but you can actually go into your Android phone to have it search any time you say “Okay Google”–no button presses required. You can do the same thing on the iPhone, too, setting it to make Siri to respond any time you say “hey Siri.” The Xbox One allows you to say “Xbox On” to turn it on, along with countless other commands. You could call this magic omnipresence.
The Limitations Of Cortana
Back to the earlier point, even if Cortana can reach omniscience, her inability to fully integrate omnipotence or omnipresence into another company’s platform puts her at an automatic disadvantage on an iPhone or Android device. What actual effect does this have in your day-to-day usage? As Microsoft published on their blog:
Some features require access to the system that aren’t currently possible with iOS or Android, so things like toggling settings or opening apps won’t initially be available in the Cortana companions for those platforms. Similarly, the ability to invoke Cortana hands-free by saying “Hey Cortana” requires special integration with the device’s microphone, so that feature will be limited to Windows Phones and PCs.
In other words, sure, Cortana more or less passes the first test of voice utility if you want to check a White Sox score, but because it can’t access your iPhone’s OS at the core level, she can’t do a lot–like adjust volume or send a text message. And because Cortana isn’t baked natively into iOS, Cortana will never have that seamless “just talk to it” integration with the operating system, like Siri. (It seems plausible that Cortana could integrate at this level with Android, but Microsoft has announced any plans to do so yet.)
Could Microsoft Win Anyway?
Am I being too hard on Microsoft? Could Cortana, with more wit or intelligence, take out a Siri? You don’t always need to own the entire platform to own the experience, after all. Just look at what Amazon has done with its Kindle app. Everyone would have thought that iBooks would be the default way you read on your iPhone or iPad, but Amazon, using its own app where you can’t even buy books, has historically been the more popular reader on iOS.
But there’s a big difference between a reading app and a voice assistant. iBooks or Kindle is a destination on your device. It’s a place you go after you’ve made the decision to use one specific function: Reading a book.
Cortana or Siri aren’t destinations but vehicles. Using voice, they need to transport you anywhere your requests take you, instantly–just like you can strike up a conversation with someone about anything that goes anywhere. To do that, the Cortanas of the world need to be fully baked into the operating system, with omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. Sandboxing a service like Cortana within the confines of a conventional app only tempts us to forget about her. And unfortunately for Microsoft, the only place Cortana has all three god-like powers are on Windows devices.
So while Cortana is about to invade iOS and Android, she’s unlikely to rule either platform in a meaningful way.