Last week Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8.1, the newest version of its phone OS at the Build 2014 conference in San Francisco. One of the big new features for this release was the addition of a new ‘Personal Assistant’ feature called Cortana. Cortana is essentially Microsoft’s version of Apple’s Siri or Google Now. Cortana is currently labelled as a Beta product and officially only available to US based users, although it’s still possible to configure a phone running the the Windows 8.1 Developer Preview to run Cortana as a user in the UK ..which I obviously did as soon as the word was out on how to achieve this.
Cortana can do all of the typical things you’d expect from seeing previous Siri demos but for me one of the most interesting and important differences from Siri is that Microsoft have thought about how developers might want to integrate their own apps with Cortana and provided the necessary hooks and information on how to do this. Therefore, armed with a decent Microsoft sample project I went about adding Cortana integration into my existing My O2 Live Tiles proof of concept app. The app could already retrieve a customers O2 allowances for minutes, data and text so after a few relatively simply updates and I had the app responding to some basic voice commands initiated through Cortana. The experiment only really touched on what could be achieved given more time. The level of integration demonstrated in the video below only took around a hour or so to complete – I probably spent longer trying to record a reasonable video demonstrating it in action.
There is plenty of room for improvement. Currently the Cortana to 3rd party app integration requires Cortana to kick off the app in question into the foreground. A useful addition, which I’m expecting is already on the Cortana development team roadmap, would allow a background agent to respond and return results that would be displayed directly within the Cortana interface. Also, the speech recognition was a bit flaky but that could simply be put down to the necessity of configuring ‘US English’ on the phone in order to get access to Cortana in the first place. When Cortana is officially available in the UK in the coming months I’m expecting that side of things to be much better.