What Microsoft’s ‘Cortana’ Needs To Do Better Than Siri

With the introduction of iOS 7 later this week (at least into public hands), Siri is poised to exit "Beta." Finally, right? Of course, language learning takes time, and Siri has been ingesting queries for a long time now in order to improve her understanding of the human voice. Meanwhile, Google Now shipped for Jelly Bean devices, and arguably offered an even more intense and intimate robotic guide. Not only can Google Now respond to your questions and book appointments into your digital calendar, but it can also anticipate. And if we're being honest, Microsoft's own assistant needs to take anticipation to the next level if it wants to grab any eyes.

It's no secret that Windows Phone is lagging behind iOS and Android. After some two years in the spotlight, consumers are indifferent to it. Jessica Alba, an A-list celebrity who was hired to promote the operating system, was recently spotted using an iPhone. (Is anyone surprised?) Microsoft just paid over $7 billion to buy Nokia's devices division, in part because Nokia itself was testing Android on Lumia hardware. And you can't really blame them -- WP8 was doing nothing for Lumia sales, and once that initial agreement ended, it would've behooved Nokia to look towards the world's most popular smartphone OS.

The reality is that WP8 is in serious trouble. The ecosystem is lacking, the app market is lacking, and most of all, smartphone owners who have become used to living life with iOS or Android in their pocket have absolutely no incentive to change course. Cortana has been rumored as Microsoft's edition of Siri -- a digital helper baked into the fabric of Windows Phone. This is the first major opportunity for Windows Phone to one-up an archrival's key feature in a very long time, and in our estimation, it'll need to be sharper, wiser, and more proactive.

Cortana needs to be able to have eyes in more places. Granted, this should be opt-in, and it could make privacy advocates a little uneasy, but the reality is that AI is only as smart as you let it be. Cortana needs to be able to see beyond Microsoft's ecosystem, which is to us, the key. If Microsoft can finally get Windows Phone to play nice with Google's services (search, Gmail, Maps, etc.) as well as Apple's services (to the extent that they open them), Cortana could have a major leg-up. If you could ask your Lumia phone to search your Gmail for a flight confirmation, or to pull up your "Home" address that's stored in a competing mapping program, it could cross borders that remain uncrossed.

Image credit: Psychosis2013.deviantart.com

Cortana needs to play across platforms for one major reason: even if you buy a Lumia, chances are your friends will still be using a different platform. To get noticed, it's going to need to be able to talk to those other people, and break down walls that have been erected elsewhere. It also needs to be able to learn your habits, much like the heralded Nest thermostat. If you are at the airport, it should automatically surface flight-related information. If you're at work, it should automatically quiet your ringer. If you hop in your car, it should automatically flip to car mode. If you're trying to phone someone that Cortana sees is in a meeting, it should alert you that now might not be the best time. To do all of this, it's going to need to tap into API hooks in more places than Siri and Google Now, and it's going to require Microsoft caving to the fact that many people are living outside of its ecosystem.

Hopefully, we'll see Cortana surface soon, and do things that other assistants aren't. It may be one of the final chances for WP8 to prove its worth in a world that's increasingly okay with just two major mobile platforms.