Microsoft is next in line to build a mobile personal assistant, one that's more than more than a robotic voice that obeys spoken commands. The feature will tie together all Microsoft products. So it's probably appropriate that it'll be named Cortana after the artificially intelligent character in Halo.
Clues of Cortana's existence have been popping up for months now, most recently as an app called "zCortana" found in a leaked early version of the Windows Phone operating system. Bing director Stefan Weitz also alluded to the fact that Microsoft was building a competitor to Siri and Google Now but wanted it to be much better. "We are not shipping until we have something more revolutionary than evolutionary," he told CNET in July. "There are teams working hot and heavy on this right now."
That same month, outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer also alluded to "a family of devices powered by a service-enabled shell." Ballmer's someone who's talked up this idea for a while now, and his vision for what this "shell" will look like is nothing short of ambitious. Ballmer wrote in the July strategy memo:
Our UI will be deeply personalized, based on the advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world. Our shell will natively support all of our essential services, and will be great at responding seamlessly to what people ask for, and even anticipating what they need before they ask for it.
ZDNet first reported details about Cortana on Thursday morning, and The Verge followed up with screenshots. And so it seems like this "service-enabled shell" is just around the corner, though it's doubtful that it will appear before 2014. In the meantime, Siri's getting better with each new iOS update—though it remains absent from OS X—and Google Now is getting new features on a pretty regular basis.
In other words, the competition in the artificially intelligent personal assistant sector is getting pretty fierce. Even if it can't match the features, Microsoft has one thing that Siri and Google Now don't: a whole personality, not just a face.