Unlike Siri, Cortana plays well with others

Commentary: Microsoft's virtual assistant has the ability to hand off voice commands to mobile apps, a welcome compromise that could benefit users and developers.

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By reacing out to apps, Cortana has created another advantage versus Siri. YouTube screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

When Apple announced the features of iOS 8 -- expected to appear in a new generation of devices this fall -- the company was lauded for offering more choice in cloud services, notification widgets, and software keyboards as well as allowing more services to populate share sheets.

There was one key technology in its mobile operating system that Apple did not make available to app developers -- Siri. Apple's virtual assistant, which made a name for itself based on its natural interaction, only works with the company's hand-picked applications. Apple's reluctance to open up Siri fully has some justification. Keeping up with the specialized and conflicting vocabularies used by different apps could get difficult and lead to a sharp drop-off in the natural interaction illusion.

Siri's limitations have already been picked up on by Microsoft. In July, the software giant released a video spot demonstrating some of the ways its own Cortana virtual assistant can outsmart its Apple rival. But there is an important feature that Cortana now has that isn't highlighted in that spot: the latest version of Cortana can hand off verbal commands to apps.

After activating Cortana, you can say something like, "Foursquare, find me places to eat," and Cortana will pass on the request to the recently refocused Yelp competitor.

The need to specify the app breaks up the illusion of having a conversation with a human assistant who wouldn't need to be told which app to use. You'll also have to be more precise about syntax than you would be with a Siri query such as, "Do I need my umbrella tomorrow?" Finally, apps wont be able to continue the Cortana dialogue, just dutifully fulfill their requests. However, the added flexibility is worth it.

The capability doesn't just benefit users, it benefits developers. Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system, which faces challenges in a mobile market dominated by Apple's iOS and Google's Android, has long surfaced app functionality to the top of its user interface with Live Tiles and now Live Folders. With the new Cortana feature, app functionality can be activated without digging into the app list, even if an app hasn't been pinned to the Start screen.

Of course, anything Microsoft can do to attract more and better apps to Windows Phone is a step in the right direction. Not surprisingly, several of the apps that already work with Cortana are from the combined Microsoft/Nokia entity itself, including Skype, MixRadio, and Cortrends, which relays trending information from Bing. Foursquare and Twitter are two of the leading third-party players.

Windows Phone 8.1 is still relatively new, and there's great potential for Cortana's app hand-off to streamline the smartphone experience even more than Live Tiles. Consider how many times you enter apps to do a quick task such as checking an email, sending a Facebook message, or ordering a car from Uber. Cortana's app hand-off could perform all these tasks, and there's potential for tighter integration down the line if app developers work directly with Microsoft.

Cortana may be a latecomer to the virtual assistant pool, but it's one that isn't afraid to call out for a little help in the service of the user -- even if it has to make a few compromises to do so.

 

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