Can artificial intelligence save Windows Phones?

Microsoft's mobile AI assistant may put Apple's Siri and Google Now to shame, even make Windows Phones sexy. Did I really just write that?

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Let's face it: Hardware is boring. As Apple's recent iPhone introduction showed, when it comes to handsets we are looking at a future of incremental improvements -- a faster processor, a better motion sensor, a fingerprint sensor. Nice, sure, but hardly worth getting up from the couch over. Nobody but a diehard Apple fanboy cares what kind of chip is inside that overpriced piece of gold-rimmed electronic bling. They want it to tell them something they don't know, to give them something they need at that very moment, to help them in ways they didn't even expect. When it comes down to form or function, function usually wins in the long run.

The real innovation will come from software, which has yet to even begin to tap the capabilities of modern processors. And this is where Microsoft actually has a shot.

When people think of the places where great ideas emerge, they think of places like Xerox Parc, MIT Media Lab, and IBM's Almaden Research Center. They don't think of Redmond. Yet Microsoft Research has done some truly amazing work. The Kinect's groundbreaking gesture and facial recognition is an example of Microsoft innovation that actually made it into a product. The Microsoft Surface (the tabletop computer, not the tablet) and the Microsoft Courier tablet are two that didn't.

So what happens? My best guess is that great ideas make their way into upper management at Redmond and then die a slow languishing death, crushed under the weight of middle managers fighting to protect their turf or killed by the big guy at the top because they don't fit into his vision of the Microsoft enterprise. This is another argument for uncoupling Microsoft's mobile and consumer divisions from its enterprise business and for new leadership at the top -- the last one, at least, an argument that finally got heard.

Frankly, the fight for mobile dominance is not about you or me. It's not even about winning the allegiance of iPhone-toting hipsters or Android phandroids or the Facebook generation. This fight is about the generation after that one, the users still in high school and college, whose product loyalty lasts barely longer than the lifespan of a tweet.

So a human-like interface without the smugness of Siri or the robotic-ness of Google Now could well be a hit with the kids.

I asked a teenager of my acquaintance if the name Cortana meant anything to him. He looked at me like I'd just asked him if he'd ever heard of pizza. "Of course." Then he named the actress who voices her. I asked if he'd thought having a Siri-like app on his Window phone that looked and acted like Cortana would be cool. "Yes," he said, "so long as it isn't lame."

So that's the real challenge: All the Microsoft mavens need to do is build an intelligent personal assistant that isn't lame. Think they're up to it?

Can Cortana save Microsoft from irrelevance, the way she saves Master Chief from danger in Halo? Post your thoughts below or email me:

This article, "Can artificial intelligence save Windows Phones?" was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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