Cortana, Microsoft's response to Siri, says 'Hello world'

The voice-activated personal assistant was demonstrated at the Build conference

Microsoft has unveiled Cortana, its response to Apple's Siri and Google's Now, as it seeks to make its Windows Phone OS a stronger competitor to iOS and Android.

Joe Belfiore, a corporate vice president with the Windows Phone group, demonstrated Cortana responding to a variety of voice commands, including requests for Web information and instructions to perform calendar tasks.

"Cortana is a truly personal digital assistant," he said during the opening keynote Wednesday at the company's Build conference in San Francisco.

Cortana is currently in beta and is part of Windows Phone 8.1, the latest version of Microsoft's OS for smartphones. Cortana is powered by the Bing search engine and "fully replaces" the existing search function on Windows Phone, he said.

Users can choose to make a wide range of information available to Cortana, so the application can use it to make personalized recommendations and suggestions for a variety of situations and scenarios.

"The user is in control of his or her relationship with Cortana," he said.

Belfiore showed how it's possible to "tell" Cortana to initiate a phone call, add or modify entries to the calendar, display flight updates, log reminders, set alarms and launch and interact with third-party applications, like Facebook and Hulu.

As a Web search engine, Cortana can be told, for example, to find the best Mexican restaurants in a particular city, which it does by tapping Yelp reviews and ratings, then narrow the list down to those that take reservations, and then place a call to one of them.

APIs (application programming interfaces) will allow developers to build applications for Cortana, he said.

Although Cortana's main attractiveness is its voice recognition capability, users can also interact with it via text queries.

Microsoft also gave a quick peek at the much-awaited "touch first" version of its Office suite for the tile-based "Modern" interface in Windows 8 and 8.1 devices, which ironically will arrive after the version for iPads, launched last week.

Kirk Koenigsbauer, a corporate vice president with the Office team, showed a pre-release version of PowerPoint for touchscreens, highlighting that the "ribbon" menus are consistent with the desktop version of the suite, but optimized for touch.

As Microsoft develops this "touch first" version, it wants to make sure the applications provide an "unmistakably Office experience" across devices of all sizes, such as small tablets and large touch-enabled screens, he said.

In addition to replicating the "ribbon," that means replicating advanced features, capabilities and elements in the applications, like inserted pictures and graphics in Word and "inking" in PowerPoint that lets presenters circle things in slides on the fly.

He didn't say when this "touch first" version of Office will be ready.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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