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Cortana may be Windows Phone’s killer app, but not in Canada

Cortana in Canada? Whoah, whoah, you guys have French there! Microsoft corporate vice president Joe Belfiore, of the Operating Systems Group, gestures while demonstrating the new Cortana personal assistant (the blue circle) during the keynote address of the Build Conference Wednesday, April 2, 2014, in San Francisco.

Eric Risberg/AP

Canadians can add Cortana, Microsoft's artificially intelligent personal assistant for smartphones, to the long list of technology-related products and services that won't be available north of the border – at least for the foreseeable future.

What makes it worse, is that Cortana is designed not just to be a gadfly who tells jokes on command, but is Microsoft's bold attempt to re-engineer how humans interact with technology (more on that later).

Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri will be launching in the United States this summer as part of the Windows Phone 8.1 software update coming to new smartphones and some existing ones, with the United Kingdom following afterward. No release date has been announced for Canada.

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"I don't know for sure [why] but it probably has something to do with the English and French," said Mary-Ellen Anderson, vice-president of the developer and platform group for Microsoft Canada, in an interview at the company's Build conference in San Francisco. "You don't want to launch something in Canada unless it's in both languages."

In the case of this particular product, the delay is perhaps understandable since Cortana – named after an AI character in Microsoft's Halo video games – relies heavily on voice recognition and language interpretation. The company wants to ensure the system works well in English before expanding it to other languages.

On the other hand, Apple included Siri in Canada when it launched on the iPhone 4S in 2011, although it wasn't until the following year that the company's personal assistant gained Canadian-specific knowledge – like interpreting local maps – or the ability to understand French.

The best that Canadian Windows Phone users can hope for at this point is that the wait for Cortana isn't a lengthy one – and it may not be, if Microsoft follows through on new strategy promises made by executives. As part of his keynote address on Wednesday, new chief executive Satya Nadella promised that the company is going to think like a challenger and that it will innovate faster than it has in recent years.

Windows Phone director Greg Sullivan also said in an interview that the company is having to move faster in order to catch up with rivals Google and Apple, who dominate the global smartphone and tablet markets.

"As long as we keep doing that, we'll be in good shape," he said.

When Canadians do finally get Cortana, they'll probably notice its similarities to Siri. Both are voice-activated and answer questions from their respective users. A Cortana user can, for example, ask about the weather forecast or request suggestions on restaurants and bars, at which point a female voice provides answers.

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But Microsoft's assistant is different in that "she" builds a profile on the user from his or her respective interests and queries, then proactively volunteers information and suggests courses of action based on that information. If she notices that her user is always checking the weather, she'll ask whether she should just add at function to the phone's home screen.

"That kind of proactivity, based on the fact that she bothered to get to know me, is also different from Siri. Siri waits to be told or asked," Mr. Sullivan said. "Siri will give you the same answer she gives me because she doesn't differentiate between us."

Cortana's learning and proactivity is also similar to Google Now, the search company's assistant on Android phones. The difference there, Mr. Sullivan said, is that Microsoft's offering has been designed to have a level of personality that isn't based on cold, hard algorithms that direct users to web searches or services. Cortana will, for example, learn how to say her user's name properly and flash personally relevant messages. If she has learned that her user's sister is having a baby, she'll remind the user to ask about the topic when that person calls.

This is both a plus a minus, according to Mike Calcagno, partner development manager at Microsoft's Bing search division, because it takes Cortana a while to become truly useful to her user. At the same, it's also what will hopefully make her feel like less of a machine.

"You don't divulge everything to a friend right away," he said. "That relationship and that knowledge of you takes a while to evolve and that's the nature of the technological system too."

That unnatural-ness of machines is ultimately one of the problems Microsoft is trying to solve through its take on the personal assistant.

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For as long as there have been computers, people have been forced to learn unnatural methods of interacting with them, whether it was through punch-cards, mice or keyboards. Recent advances such as touch screens, voice and gesture controls have done much to free people from those artificial constraints, but new ones have quietly taken their place.

Web searches are a good example. A person who has taken the time to learn how to use keywords properly can typically find information on the web faster and more effectively than someone who hasn't. The same goes for existing personal assistants, Calcagno said.

Cortana's learning capabilities and proactivity are therefore efforts to spur more natural two-way conversation between people and machines.

"It allows people to search without having to learn the patterns," he said.

Of course, with every technological promise there is also the corresponding possibility of peril. Microsoft is wading deep into those particular waters, where Cortana's learning and record keeping on users is a privacy advocate's nightmare. Government snooping efforts could conceivably be eased greatly if spies could simply access her "notebook," wherein a complete profile is stored on her respective user.

The flip-side to that, Mr. Sullivan said, is that everything in Cortana's profile is voluntary, viewable and editable by the user. It's sort of like being able to look at your own police dossier and then choosing which details you want deleted. Does Cortana know too much about what kind of movies you like, or where you spend your evenings? No problem – she can be made to forget such information, or she can be prevented from learning it in the first place.

"Ultimately, you have control over it," he said.

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About the Author

Peter Nowak has been writing about technology for 20 years, with a focus on trends and how they affect the world. He worked at The Globe and Mail between 1997 and 2004 before moving to China and then New Zealand, where he won the award for best technology reporter at the New Zealand Herald. More


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