A month ago Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana became available for download in a pre-beta release. Now an official US beta version of Cortana for Android is here. An iOS version is coming soon.
The full Cortana experience and functionality are available to Windows 10 and Windows Phone users. But because Cortana for Android doesn’t access your email or read your calendar it can’t deliver the same depth of functionality and features on Android. Nonetheless I was able to use Cortana in its beta form today for a wide range of tasks:
- As a voice-enabled search engine for web queries
- To initiate texts and calls with voice
- Set alarms
- Create reminders
- Create meeting and calendar entries
- Get driving directions (it uses Google Maps)
- Conduct local searches near me (this was a standout feature)
From a technical standpoint I don’t know what prevents Cortana currently from reading my email (Gmail) or Google Calendar. On the iPhone I actually rely more heavily on the Outlook mail app, which presumably it could access and thus would deliver a more complete experience on that platform (we’ll have to see).
In its current form you can’t ask Cortana things like, “What time is my flight tomorrow”? as you can with Google. Google knows because it accesses your email and calendar entries that contain the flight information. From this information Google can also surface useful links and content in Google Now (e.g., “things to do in Miami”) and tell you its time to leave for the airport or meetings based on traffic.
When Cortana doesn’t know something (like my flight time) it translates that question into a conventional search query and serves a page of mobile web results, which may or may not be relevant to the particular need need or question at hand.
For those interested in swapping Cortana for Google Now, the former can be permanently substituted for Google Now by swiping up and selecting “complete action using Cortana . . . always.” The “Cortana Now” content experience, however, falls short of the current Google Now experience.
More narrowly, as a voice-assistant and speech-enabled search engine, Cortana can probably go head to head with Google. But, in addition to the other limitations, it can’t launch apps or initiate functions hands free — as you can by saying “OK Google” or “Hey Siri” (less reliably).
Cortana is part of Microsoft’s broader effort to “colonize” Android — to deliver an increasing range of Microsoft experiences on top of the Android OS. It’s analogous to Netflix riding on top of internet access provided by Comcast.As another recent example, Bing launched its version of Google “Now on Tap,” called “Bing Snapshots.” Though it’s really a demo app for developers, it offers contextually relevant search information for any app installed on your Android device.
Cortana for Android is already pretty good and will likely improve over time. However there won’t be much motivation for Android owners to use it regularly unless or until it can access the personal information stored in mail and calendar entries. If it can do those things it might be able to give Google Now a run for its money.
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