Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant could well come to Windows 9

It could be a race between Apple and Microsoft as to who gets a voice assistant on the desktop first

As a boy, from the first time I saw "Star Trek," I thought it would be incredibly cool to say "Computer!" and summon a digital voice to heed my beck and call. Siri was a step in that direction, but not quite what I imagined. It's more of an entertainment app than a true assistant. Also, OS X's voice-activated assistant is great for the visually impaired but not so simple to use as the "Star Trek" computer. Now, Microsoft's Cortana may prove to be a stronger next step in the evolution of digital assistants.

Cortana is the Windows Phone 8.1 digital assistant meant to compete with Apple's Siri and Google's Now. From the demonstrations I've seen, Cortana has a smoother, more polished, more human sound compared to Siri. Using the Satori knowledge repository that powers Bing, Cortana has a strong machine-learning technology base to rely on as well.

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Rumors have it that we'll see Cortana in future versions of Xbox and even Windows. According to Neowin, the Cortana integration is beyond the trial stages and is at a point where it could ship in Windows 9 next year. If Cortana functions well in Windows on the desktop, it wouldn't be too great a leap to move it into Windows Server.

Reports say Cortana will debut in Windows 9 first as an app, then later integrated into the OS itself (it's unclear if that means Windows 9 or 10). If true, this would put Microsoft one step ahead of Apple, which hasn't elected to put Siri on the Mac (it's not promised for, nor evident in, the forthcoming OS X Yosemite). It's interesting to note that Apple filed a patent last year called "Intelligent Digital Assistant in a Desktop Environment," so we'll have to wait and see which company gets their assistant on their desktop OS first.

I can easily see value in a Cortana app. One great use would be to simply tell your PC to print your boarding passes before heading to the airport, and voilĂ , there they are. Cortana on your PC could read emails and update you on posts, too.

But Cortana on the PC (like Siri on the Mac) could have some competition, such as if the Kickstarter Ubi project goes anywhere. Ubi promises to be a very simple voice-activated computer that you plug into a wall outlet; it will connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi, so you can check all sorts of matters through it -- no bootup of your computer required.

From a work perspective, I believe administrators would love having the ability to voice-control access to server monitoring systems, enable or disable user features, and handle support tickets. Of course, one downside to an audio-controlled assistant is that it could become a noisy work environment. It's a good thing Cortana also lets you type your questions.

This story, "Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant could well come to Windows 9," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in Windows at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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