This past week Microsoft unveiled Cortana to the world, the company's new digital assistance that will go head-to-head with Apple's Siri and Google Now; it will be available with Windows Phone 8.1 and, besides the clever name leveraging Halo, sounds pretty compelling. Microsoft joins the race to have your phone actually earns its title of being smart. Up until now smart phones have that label simply because they allow us to do more than the older flip/feature phones we had in the 90s-early 2000s (Blackberries, or really Blueberries notwithstanding). The iPhone exploded on the scene in 2007 and shortly thereafter our love affair with apps gave life to our phone and we considered it smart. Problem is, phones don’t do anything without being told. Phones are dumb. 2014 is the year that changes on a large-scale.
At CES earlier this year, Yahoo announced the acquisition of Aviate, a start-up that focuses on making your phone smarter through context – understanding time, usage, behavior, and need, and then serving up the most relevant information at the time. Aviate is one of a crop of companies that are focused on actually making your smartphone smart including Chameleon, Cover, Sherpa (pictured) and others I’ve written about in the past. All of these companies take an over-the-top approach to making your device more intelligent and have pushed the industry forward towards contextual technologies. The magic lies is in aggregating disparate data sources from search, location, usage patterns, and more for your phone to understand context and be really helpful and the closer to the OS level the better. Although there are apps that leverage the data that can be gleaned from functions and capabilities of the phone and allowable by the OS (less-so on iOS), actually controlling the OS and being the data gatekeeper is a definite advantage.
Google Now is (arguably) clearly the king of context at this point. Due to the insane amount of data and reach Google has to draw from both on your phone and your habits across the web, Google Now can understand and inform multiple touch points in your life. Microsoft can meld device and web data to give Cortana the smarts she needs to be your helpful sidekick (and maybe even the street cred with gamers who might have dreamed of a real life Cortana while staring at a screen for hours).
There won't be a clear winner as all of these digital assistants will continue to evolve, but its clear that the days of the dumb icon are over. I think its about time. Let's just hope we don't have an army of guys dating Her.
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