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Life With Cortana, Microsoft’s Predictive Search Challenger To Google Now & Siri
Microsoft’s new predictive search agent Cortana is finally becoming available to the general public. How does it compare to longstanding champion Google Now? After months of using them both, it’s no contest. Google Now easily wins, in my daily life. But Cortana does gives Microsoft an important foundation in the predictive search space and puts it well ahead of Apple’s own Siri.
Microsoft announced that Cortana would be part of Windows Phone 8.1 earlier this year. Developers and others who chose to install the Windows 8.1 preview on their phones have had access to Cortana since that time.
Now Cortana is becoming generally available to the public, pre-installed on Microsoft’s newest Nokia phone that’s out in the U.S., the Lumia 635, plus those with older Nokia Lumias are getting updates that began last week. Microsoft has not said when the update will come to other Windows Phone 8.0 devices.
With Cortana, Microsoft now will have a digital assistant to rival Apple’s Siri on iOS and Google Now on both Android and iOS. More important, Cortana offers predictive search, something that can make a digital assistant even better.
Digital Assistants Vs. Predictive Search
Predictive search is easily confused with digital assistants. They’re not one-and-the-same. Siri, Google Now and Cortana are all digital assistants that will add reminders to your calendar or help you do certain things with your phone, like sending a text, playing a song or setting an alarm.
But Siri largely lacks predictive search. It’s not going to automatically show you anything it believes is related to a need you have (though the Today screen in iOS may show your local weather automatically, along with stocks and time to predicted destinations). Pretty much, Siri is an assistant that learns little about you and has no memory of what you do.
Not so with Google Now, which will anticipate all types of information you may need, so much so that it can be downright scary. And Cortana, which is well back from the scary line, still wants to (and does) have much more “memory” than Siri.
That’s why in this look at Cortana, I’m only comparing it Google Now. When it comes to predictive search, Siri’s not really a player.
Predictive Search Finally Emerges
I’ll get to the head-to-head shortly, but I wanted to cover a bit more about why predictive search is such a big deal.
I’ve been covering the search space for over eighteen years now. I’m pretty jaded to anything that promises to be revolutionary, as those promises rarely pan out. Not so with predictive search, which is one of the most exciting areas of search that I’ve seen emerge, providing answers before you even think to ask them.
Back in the late 1990s, some believed “agents” would constantly discover whatever we needed, no search required. Autonomy (now HP Autonomy) was a company that was big on this idea. One IDG prediction in 2003 assumed that in ten years, “The web will be intelligent enough to give users exactly what they are looking for: no more scouring hundreds of pages on Google.”
Obviously, that failed to happen.
I was always dubious about such claims. There’s so much “unpredictable search” or “on-demand search” that I can’t see agents completely replacing our now long-standing habit of asking a search engine for answers to questions that have just occurred to us.
However, there’s no question that Google Now has proven that there are some search needs that can be predicted. These are often especially tied to location. That’s why — in retrospect — it’s not surprising that predictive search has emerged as more a smartphone feature rather than a search engine feature. We got Google Now for our phones long before we got it for our desktops.
Indeed, predictive search may even develop into an essential smartphone feature. We may come to expect every phone to have it, just as we expect our phones to have cameras or notification areas. And just as people might not buy a phone deemed to have a bad camera, they might also pass over a phone with poor predictive search in favor of one offering better.
Cortana’s Baby Steps Vs. Google Now
I said in my opening that Google Now easily beats Cortana in terms of predictive search, and that’s best illustrated by what both were showing me when I began this story last week. Here’s a representation of what Cortana displayed, when I opened it up and scrolled through what it was offering (you can click to enlarge):
It’s mainly headlines. When you first start using Cortana, it asks you about the type of news you’re interested in. That’s why you see it showing me top headlines, political news and entertainment news. I also have a standing search that I created for news about the “Agents of SHIELD” television series. Knowing my location, Cortana also gave me the current weather.
Here’s what Google Now showed me (again, you can click to enlarge):
From Google Now, I’m told someone I know is having a birthday (no, it wasn’t Larry Page — I changed the person’s image to Page’s face to keep them hidden). I got sports scores for baseball teams I’m interested in. I got an alert that an new album from an musical artist I like is available. I got a stock quote and my local weather. I was alerted to news headlines about the World Cup, LeBron James and a smartphone I’d been searching for. Another alert let me know a sunglass case I’d ordered from Amazon had shipped. Finally, Google Now suggested the travel time to a local movie theater, if I wanted to drive there — as I often do.
The amount of information Google Now presented with me was far more richer in variety and usefulness than Cortana did — and that’s generally been the case any time I’ve done a head-to-head comparison in my time using Cortana since April (FYI, using a Lumia 1020 that Microsoft has loaned me).
I’ve considered showing many more examples in this story, but the comparison above fairly represents my usual experience. Cortana shows me some occasionally interesting things, along with a lot of noise. Google Now consistently shows me things that makes me go “Wow, how’d you get so smart to think I’d want that?”
More important, virtually none of this information is showing up because I deliberately arranged for it to happen. If you look closely as the screenshot above, you’ll see Google informing me that it’s decided to show this information based on searches that I’ve done, or something it has spotted in my email, or based on web sites I’ve visited, as well as places I’ve been to.
It’s scary that Google is just figuring all this out based on information it silently gathers (with my permission) about me. It’s also incredibly useful, timely and helpful. In fact, in the past two weeks or so, Google Now’s felt like it’s not showing me as much stuff as in the past — and I’ve found that annoying. I’ve depended on it so much as my amazing assistant, ready to show me information before I know I need it, that not getting information feels like a real absence
Teaching Cortana How To Help
For the moment, Cortana has taken a much more limited approach. Rather than make guesses at what I might be interested in, it deliberately asks me to make choices. This begins with questions it asks during setup, such as illustrated below:
At setup, Cortana asks about your interests and the type of news that you’re interested in. That forms the basis of what goes into Cortana’s “Notebook,” where you can review what’s been stored or add new things to track such as through the “Interests” section:
Within interests, I can add stocks that I want to track, sports teams I want scores for, ask to get restaurant recommendations and more. In addition, Cortana itself will suggest adding things that it should track for me, as they come up during regular use:
In the first example above, Cortana noticed my phone was often in a location that wasn’t my home during weekdays, so guessed and asked for confirmation if that was my work address. It wasn’t, I work from home. This was a hotel I was staying at for a conference, but it gives you an idea of how it’s proactively trying to learn.
In the second example, it spotted a flight confirmation in my email on my phone and asked if I wanted to track that flight (at the moment, flight information is the only data Cortana will pull from your email, though this might change).
If you’re searching on Bing, you’ll also find integration with Cortana, to add topics you’d like to track. There’s also the ability to set reminders around when you are at particular locations, or for when you make calls to particular people. I love this in concept. But in practice, actually doing these things is similar to doing the other things above. It’s work. And it’s work that Google Now largely doesn’t ask me to do.
The Balancing Act
Within Google Now, I can control some of what it will show me:
But unlike with Cortana, I generally didn’t proactively make decisions about how Google Now should behave. Usually, Google Now just started adding things it thought I wanted. Occasionally, like Cortana, it would suggest new things to track and ask for confirmation. But often, as with tracking my Amazon deliveries, Google Now is just automatically making useful choices for me.
While Cortana’s “always ask” approach makes it less scary for me, it also makes Cortana less useful. Over and over again over the past months, I’ve fired up Cortana and Google Now to see how they compare. Google Now constantly comes out the winner, for me.
It’s not that Microsoft isn’t aware of the issue, that asking for permission means it will show less. It is, and Microsoft is debating whether it should get more aggressive in automatically making assumptions. Perhaps Cortana can be both, the assistant that learns as you allow it, for those freaked out by Google Now’s approach (or Google in general). But if you give it permission, maybe it will become a more proactive assistant.
While Behind Google, Cortana Is Well Ahead Of Siri
Overall, I understand why Cortana currently isn’t as robust as Google. I suspect that to really be useful, Microsoft might have to do the same “all in” approach that Google does, or at least let users that want to allow this to have it.
But the foundation is there for growth. Whereas Microsoft is having to debate whether to make more proactive assumptions, at least it’s able to grow its assistant on the back of the Bing search technology that underpins Cortana, just as Google can do the same for Google Now.
That’s leaves Apple as the odd one out. If these services do grow, Apple lacks that fundamental search tech. It’s demonstrated nothing that’s about to scan through our emails, to watch our search habits, to build out a solid portfolio of our lives, all of which predictive search is based upon. It’s not even third-place behind Google and Cortana, in the predictive search field. It’s not even competing at all.
It’ll be interesting to see how all of these develop. Will Google Now go from strength-to-strength? Will Apple decide Siri has to get more predictive? And how will Cortana change going forward, from the baby steps it has made now?
For more about Cortana, you might find this interview I did with Microsoft at our SMX Advanced conference in June useful: