Microsoft announces Cortana smartphone voice search

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by Nancy Blair, USA TODAY

KING5.com

Posted on April 2, 2014 at 9:29 AM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 2 at 6:41 PM

SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft on Wednesday announced new features for Windows Phone, including a widely anticipated Siri- and Google Now-like voice assistant called Cortana.

Among other things, the Windows Phone 8.1 update brings a central hub for notifications for text messages, incoming e-mail and the like, similar to what you find on Android and Apple devices. Microsoft also announced new features for the Start Screen and a personalized lock screen.

The big news is Cortana, named for a character in the popular Halo video game. It is powered by Microsoft's Bing search engine and essentially replaces the search function on a Windows Phone smartphone.

You can use the feature, which is launching in its beta, or test phase, to make phone calls, send texts, take a note or give you a reminder.

Cortana has a notebook. You can store your interests, places you frequent, calendar, relationships with friends, family and colleagues and your "quiet hours."

So for instance, during your quiet hours you can let certain calls come through.

The more you use the search function the more Cortana learns about you, by asking you if you want her to store it. Yes, Cortana has a female voice. And "she" is shaped like a circle.

Microsoft executive Joe Belfiore also said there will be third-party apps that can extend Cortana functionality, including one for Facebook.

The keynote kicked off with Windows Phone but Microsoft also was expected to preview upcoming Windows updates.

Handset maker Nokia, which Microsoft is acquiring in a $7 billion deal expected to close this month, also will be making announcements in conjunction with the event.

Over the past year, Microsoft has been touting the strides it has made with Windows Phone. It has increased market share and built up offerings in its app store. As of February, there were more than 240,000 apps, including recent mainstay additions such as Vine, Instagram and traffic and mapping app Waze.

Yet Windows Phone still trails Apple and Android market share by a wide margin even as it solidifies its spot in third place over BlackBerry. It ended 2013 with 90.9% growth for the year with shipments of 33.4 million units, according to researcher IDC. Android devices by a variety of manufacturers clocked 793.6 million, for 58.7% annual growth.

As part of the company's push to a "mobile-first, cloud-first" world, Microsoft chief Satya Nadella last week in San Francisco made his first public appearance as CEO to announce that the popular Office software suite would be available on Apple's iPad.

The highly anticipated move was seen as a breakthrough as Microsoft focuses on delivering services to businesses and consumers wherever they are. In the week since that announcement, the apps for Word, Excel and PowerPoint have risen to the top of the free download chart for iPad.

On Monday, Nadella named Nokia chief Stephen Elop to head Microsoft's Devices group as part of several executive moves aimed at getting its management structure aligned with the new multiplatform focus.

Investors so far like what they see in Nadella, who took over the CEO spot from Steve Ballmer in February. The company's stock has been trading around highs last seen in 2000.

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