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Microsoft's Cortana will join Siri on iOS

Microsoft will release its virtual assistant as an app for iOS and Android in the fall, according to new reports.

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    Joe Belfiore, vice president of the operating system group at Microsoft, introduces Cortana, a new voice-powered assistant, early this month.
    Reuters
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Siri is about to get a new friend.

Microsoft is reportedly developing a version of its year-old digital assistant, named Cortana, for iOS and Android. The move seems to indicate Microsoft is trying new ways to get its products onto the two dominant mobile operating systems across the US. For mobile users, the question will be: how does Cortana stack up next to Siri?

The Cortana project came out of a branch of Microsoft developing artificial intelligence, dubbed “Einstein.” Cortana, which is named after a central character in the massively popular Microsoft-owned video game series Halo, has been installed on Microsoft phones for the past year. She works similarly to Siri, acting as a primarily voice-activated personal assistant that can set event reminders, check traffic conditions, and look up information online (through Bing, of course).

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Now Microsoft is looking to take Cortana to the next level, set to debut when Windows 10 rolls out this fall, according to Reuters. The next iteration of Cortana will run on desktop, and will also come as a standalone app for iOS and Android. Microsoft didn’t go into detail about Cortana’s new features, but Eric Horovitz, head of Microsoft Research and part of the Einstein team, told Reuters the new Cortana “can read and understand email” and will focus on anticipating needs.

So why would one go with Cortana over Siri, or even over Google Now? Reviewers say Microsoft's app strikes a good balance between being predictive, but not too creepy. Siri largely works based on how people phrase their questions. Google Now sometimes makes a few too many conclusions from combing customers’ search engine and browsing history.

“Cortana's knowledge about you is out in the open, in a 'notebook' that you have control over and that includes sections for interests, remind me, quiet hours, inner circle, places, and music searches,” says PC Magazine reporter Michael Muchmore in a review of Cortana last April.

Microsoft has done virtual office assistants before, but they have generally flopped (remember Microsoft Bob and Clippy?). But more so than a digital accessory, Cortana indicates a different strategy for Microsoft. Instead of using Windows products to woo people to Windows-powered hardware, chief executive officer Satya Nadella seems to be open to letting Windows’ best software naturally integrate into hardware trends, ensuring that Windows will be somewhere in consumers’ technology diet, even if that doesn’t mean they are holding a Windows phone.  

But in order for that to be successful, Microsoft is going to have to have some pretty neat software tricks up its sleeve. We’ll see if Cortana convinces the masses come next fall.

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