Four years after Apple introduced the world to Siri, Microsoft is offering up its take on the personal digital assistant.
And, unlike Clippy, Cortana has some attitude.
Ask Cortana who’s her daddy, and the digital assistant will quip: “Technically speaking, he’s Bill Gates. No big deal.”
But Cortana has a serious mission.
First of all, automated assistants are seen as the future of search, driving important traffic and data to Microsoft’s Bing search engine (which happens to get a lot of traffic from Siri). Microsoft also is looking for any selling point it can to boost its mobile phone business — even announcing on Tuesday it would no longer charge hardware makers for the operating system.
If Cortana sometimes has the wittiness of an Aaron Sorkin character, it’s because Microsoft used a team of screenwriters to create some of her responses.
More practically, Cortana is designed to be helpful in ways smartphone users have come to expect: Scheduling appointments, placing calls and sending text messages.
The assistant draws both her name and inspiration from the Halo franchise, where Cortana is an artificially intelligent assistant with a close relationship to the central character, Master Chief. One member of the team proposed Cortana as a code name for the assistant in early brainstorming sessions, and the name stuck.
“It was one of those moments where it made so much sense to us internally,” said Marcus Ash, Microsoft’s group program manager for the team that developed Cortana. “You couldn’t pick something better.”
The team went through a painstaking process that included meeting with the Halo development team to help create a backstory for Cortana, and flesh out the character in a way that strikes the proper balance between being helpful and, well, creating unrealistic expectations.
“If a personality goes too far, people think they can do all these things they can do with a personal assistant,” Ash said. “You have an expectation gap.”
Microsoft did meet with real-life personal assistants in Hollywood and beyond to learn what sorts of tasks Cortana should perform — this digital assistant will remind you to pick up the dry cleaning, for example.
And, again, there is her feistiness.
Ask Cortana to marry you and she replies “Among a handful of challenges, I don’t think the Supreme Court would approve just yet.”
A team of writers, with experience writing film scripts and science fiction, wrote lines of dialog for Cortana — including some nods to competitors such as Apple or Google.
Asked what she thinks of Siri, Cortana responds, “So far, our conversations have been kinda one-sided.”
Microsoft knows that Cortana is not the first assistant on the scene.
“We’re going to get compared competitively,” Ash said. “We want to be respectful, but we also want to have some fun.”