A month ago, Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana became available for download in a pre-beta release. Now, an official US beta version of Cortana for Android is here. An iOS version is coming soon.
The full Cortana experience and functionality are available to Windows 10 and Windows Phone users. But because Cortana for Android doesn’t access your email or read your calendar, it can’t deliver the same depth of functionality and features on Android. Nonetheless, I was able to use Cortana in its beta form today for a wide range of tasks:
- Search by voice for Web queries
- Initiate texts and calls with voice
- Set alarms
- Create reminders
- Create meeting and calendar entries
- Get driving directions (It uses Google Maps)
- Conduct local searches near me (This was a standout feature)
From a technical standpoint, I don’t know what prevents Cortana currently from reading my email (Gmail) or Google Calendar. On the iPhone, I actually rely more heavily on the Outlook mail app, which presumably it could access and deliver a more complete experience on that platform (We’ll have to see).
In its current form, you can’t ask Cortana things like, “What time is my flight tomorrow?” as you can with Google. Google knows because it accesses your email and calendar entries that contain the flight information. From this information, Google can also surface useful links and content in Google Now (e.g., “things to do in Miami”) and tell you it’s time to leave for the airport or meetings based on traffic.
When Cortana doesn’t know something (like my flight time), it translates that question into a conventional search query and serves a page of mobile Web results that may or may not be relevant to the particular need need or question at hand.
For those interested in swapping Cortana for Google Now, the former can be permanently substituted by swiping up and selecting “complete action using Cortana . . . always.” The “Cortana Now” content experience, however, falls short of the current Google Now experience.
More narrowly, as a voice-assistant and speech-enabled search engine, Cortana can probably go head to head with Google. But in addition to the other limitations, it can’t launch apps or initiate functions hands-free — as you can by saying “OK Google” or “Hey Siri” (less reliably).
Cortana is just the latest entry in Microsoft’s bid to “colonize” Android with apps and deliver an increasing number of Microsoft experiences on top of the Android OS. Another recent example is Bing’s launch of its version of Google “Now on Tap” for Android, called “Bing Snapshots,” late last week.
Cortana for Android is already pretty good and will likely improve over time. However, there won’t be much motivation for Android owners to use it regularly unless or until it can access the personal information stored in mail and calendar entries. If or when it can do those things, it might be able to give Google Now a run for its money.