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Microsoft today announced that Cortana, a digital assistant named after an artificial intelligence from the “Halo” series, will ship with its Windows Phone 8.1 operating system. It will first be available as a beta in the United States and will later expand to China and Europe.

Cortana can search the Web, perform simple tasks, and answer your questions whenever it has an Internet connection. It will also monitor your Web searches and frequently-visited locations in an effort to present information you might find useful without requiring any prompting. This is the kind of thing that would have seemed magical in 2001 — now, in 2014, it’s boring. And, given its competitors’ performance, it’s doubtful Cortana will work as promised anyway.

There doesn’t seem to be much difference between Cortana and other virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri or the Google Now service. All three of them can answer simple questions, all three are gathering personal information to become more useful, and all three are voice-activated. Microsoft might as well have announced that it has perfected the “slide to unlock” gesture.

Reactions from around the Web

The Verge notes that Microsoft is playing catch-up with Cortana:

Cortana is very much Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri, Samsung’s S Voice, and all the other voice assists software suites out there. It lets you manage basic phone functions, set appointments, perform searches, play back music, and set so-called quiet hours when only your inner circle of contacts may reach you. Similar to Google Now, Cortana learns from the web searches you perform and the locations you frequent to try and provide contextually sensitive and timely information.

PCWorld even writes that Cortana has a similar “personality” to Siri:

Cortana has a Siri-esque personality, responding to personal questions from Belfiore with jokes. For example, when Belfiore asked what Cortana thought of her appearance, she responded ‘Some things I resemble: A hula hoop, a donut… and a halo.’ (The last is a sly reference to Cortana’s origins; she’s named after the Cortana A.I. central to the popular Halo video game series.)

The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo summarizes today’s announcement in a tweet (the other company he references is Amazon, which today announced the Amazon FireTV):

9 am tech news: Two Seattle-area companies are launching competitors/copies of Apple’s tech at the same time, neither doing so in Seattle.

Pando weighs in

Michael Carney wrote about Siri’s shortcomings last March:

Since first releasing Siri, it’s intelligent personal assistant in October, 2011, Apple has been promising the world a magical voice controlled experience that has been anything but reality. Siri at this point is a novelty that lacks the polish or accuracy to live up to its promise. Anecdotally, the service is close to 50 percent accurate in voice recognition, when it needs to be greater than 95 percent.

Pando alum Richard Nieva wrote about the sheer number of digital assistants available last April:

The competition is already formidable: Google Now, Grokr, Tempo, Siri, and of course, the other Sherpa. That app is a service for Android similar to Siri and popular in the Spanish-speaking world. It was developed by natural language expert Xabier Uribe-Etxebarria and came to the US market yesterday. Also yesterday, Amazon was reported to have acquired a company that makes another voice recognition assistant product called Evi.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando.]