Microsoft's vision for Cortana extends beyond the phone

With Microsoft's digital assistant getting her debut, it's worth remembering that the company has big plans for Cortana.

Nic Healey Senior Editor / Australia
Nic Healey is a Senior Editor with CNET, based in the Australia office. His passions include bourbon, video games and boring strangers with photos of his cat.
Nic Healey
2 min read

This week, Microsoft used its Build 2014 conference to finally show off Cortana, its digital assistant and Siri rival.

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

While the focus at Build was on Windows Phone, it's worth remembering that Microsoft has big plans for Cortana across a number of platforms.

Microsoft was first talking about digital assistants back in 2011, when Steve Ballmer made it sound like the company had something almost ready for release — but for the desktop PC. At the time, Microsoft insiders were less bullish about the idea, suggesting that the technology for a natural language interface and an assistant that could deliver on these promises wasn't likely until 2014-2016.

Then back in July last year, Ballmer talked up the idea once more, without actually mentioning Cortana. As part of his memo regarding Microsoft's massive reorganisation, Ballmer spoke of "a family of devices powered by a service-enabled shell". He said:

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's Mary Jo Foley — who's forgotten more about Microsoft than most of us will ever learn — said in September that, according to her contacts in the company, Cortana was a key part of the future version of "Windows Phone, Windows and the Xbox One operating systems".

It's a compelling vision: a dedicated software agent that crosses your devices, learning constantly and hitting a point where it anticipates your needs, whether it's on your phone or in your lounge room as part of your home entertainment set up. Imagine not only being able to interface with Cortana via the Kinect, but also having an individually tailored experience from her for each family member.

For the moment, imagining is all we can do — after all, Aussies aren't likely to see Cortana until 2014 — but assuming Microsoft doesn't cut its vision for Cortana short and rest on its Windows Phone laurels, the future of the digital assistant looks pretty bright.