Sizing up Cortana, Microsoft's answer to Siri

Can Cortana, which will ship in beta form with the Windows Phone 8.1 update, hold up against Apple's Siri? 

Joe Belfiore, vice president of the operating system group at Microsoft, introduces Cortana, a new voice-powered assistant, early this month.

Cortana, the new voice-activated personal assistant for Windows phones, takes its name from an artificially intelligent character in the Halo franchise. The software is expected to launch in beta form later this month or early next, along with the Windows Phone 8.1 update. 

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s operating system group, promised that Cortana would go far beyond the capabilities of Apple's Siri assistant, to the point that Cortana could even (with permission) comb through a user's e-mail and anticipate any potential travel problems, long before the user recognizes those problems for him- or herself. 

“Siri is this anthropomorphized character, but Siri doesn’t know you personally,” Mr. Belfiore told the Times. 

Does this sound a little creepy? Well, yeah, a little. But a few hands-on tests of the software have started to trickle out in recent days, and for the most part, reviewers seem to be willing to trade a little privacy for some top-notch digital assistance. 

"One of the coolest things Cortana is able to do is remind you about something based on what happens, sort of like," writes Michael Muchmore of "For example, you can say 'remind me to ask my sister about her new beau,' and she'll know the name of the contact you're referring to and pop up text with the reminder the next time your sibling calls. She can automatically notify you about a flight change, and let you know when a good time to leave would be, based on traffic." 

And over at Laptop Magazine, Avram Piltch notes that in some ways, Cortana is a little more transparent than some of its competitors. Here's Mr. Piltch: 

Unlike Google Now, which learns about you from your online activity but never tells you exactly what dirt it has on you, Cortana has a feature called “notebook” which lets you get a full look at your profile and add or remove information from it. Going into the notebook, we were able to tell Cortana that we wanted to follow the Yankees by hitting the plus button under the sports header. Under the Inner Circle menu, we were able to select friends or relatives to add a special whitelist of people who can call you, even if you’ve set "quiet hours."

Of course, whether all of this will be enough to increase Microsoft's relatively small slice of the US smart phone market remains to be seen. 

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