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Cortana on the PC: Can we talk?

Matt Hamblen | Feb. 5, 2015
Cortana, the Windows Phone voice-activated digital assistant, now works on desktops, laptops and tablets running the preview edition of Windows 10.

More than anything, such critical comments indicate that Microsoft might need to focus more attention on explaining the value of cross-platform Cortana to average users.

Joe Belfiore, a Microsoft corporate vice president and head of the Windows team, explained the value of Cortana on the desktop in a video posted on a Windows blog.

Starting at the one-minute point, Belfiore acknowledged that while Cortana on Windows Phone had received great feedback, "people using PCs aren't used to having a personal assistant right there, ready at any time to tell them important things, like, 'you need to leave now to get to dinner on time' or to answer their questions ... about weather, world events, sports scores."

Belfiore also noted that Cortana on the desktop "can do things on my behalf" and recalled being busy typing on a desktop keyboard, then suddenly remembering he needed to send an email. "I can ask Cortana to write an email and she'll do it without me needing to take my hands off the keyboard," Belfiore said. "It's like a whole new level of multitasking that's possible in the PC."

Several busy desktop users said Belfiore's multitasking remark was mostly mystifying to them, as they again questioned the overall value of voice commands across various platforms. Others said Belfiore's example might not be much different from pausing while typing and then asking a secretary or assistant nearby to send off an email.

 Judging the value of digital assistants

"It's way too early at this point" to judge the value and efficacy of a cross-platform Cortana, said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. Still, Gold predicted that digital assistants, with their artificial intelligence and ability to interpret natural language requests, will evolve and will become a big priority for Google and Apple as well as Microsoft, among others.

"Big companies, including IBM, have been working on this capability for years, and it's a hard problem to master," Gold said. "The algorithms are hard to define and it takes tons of processing power to do it."

It's still difficult for a computer to discern the meaning of either voice or typed words in the context a human intends, Gold said. "Many different users ask questions in different ways, so being able to parse natural language inquiries is important but very hard to do," he said. "It is the quest for parsing of natural language, written or spoken, that will be the key to whether products like Cortana move away from novelties and into the mainstream, or not, for business users. I want a true digital assistant that can understand what I say and it won't matter how I say it, and that's the ultimate challenge."

 

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