She's called Cortana. Microsoft
's first voice-activated assistant -- the company's answer to Apple's Siri and Google Now voice agents -- was demonstrated Wednesday in a beta version as the company unveiled its Windows Phone 8.1 operating system.
The newest update to Microsoft's smartphone platform will be available on phones going on sale in late spring, and all Lumia phones will be updated during the summer via over-the-air transmissions. Cortana will be released first in the U.S., with rollouts in other markets to follow in a schedule not yet released.
The demonstration was made during the opening day of Microsoft's Build 2014 conference, now taking place in San Francisco. Version 8.1 of Windows Phone had been shown at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year. Windows phones currently only represent about 3 percent of the worldwide smartphone market. Additionally, the company said that its Windows 8.1 update for desktops, laptops and tablets will be released April 8.
Bing Search Engine
Microsoft said that conversations with Cortana can be conducted by a user through text or voice. She is also powered by the Bing search engine, essentially becoming the new front end in 8.1 for Bing on Windows phones.
Joel Belfiore, a Microsoft executive, conducted a webcast demonstration of Cortana at the Build conference. When asked to book an appointment for him, she knew when he had a conflict. In addition to knowing your calendar, Cortana also looks through your e-mail to find anything she might need to know about your travel plans. But Cortana made some mistakes during the demo, such as providing weather in Celsius instead of the requested Kelvin, and Belfiore noted that she is still in beta.
The voice agent was also asked to issue a reminder about the health of a puppy when Belfiore next conversed with his sister, and a text message to that effect appeared when his sister conveniently called him during the demo.
On request, Cortana also found several high-end Mexican restaurants in the Palo Alto, Calif., area and launched a Skype call. In addition to Bing, the digital agent has access to the phone's contacts and calendar, can handle texts, and has a "Notebook" that includes all of the information Cortana knows, thinks she knows, or infers about the user.
The Notebook can be modified by the user, such as letting Cortana know which callers to let through as live calls or which to send to voice mail.
In addition to Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 will feature the ability to type without lifting a finger between keys. There will also be an Action Center with app and battery notifications, and automatic connections will be made to available Wi-Fi hotspots to save on data charges.
For enterprises, the updated Windows Phone will provide full certificate management, provisioning for virtual private networks and Wi-Fi, and app black-listing or white-listing.