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Introducing Windows 10’s Cortana

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Cortana is the new “virtual assistant,” similar to Apple’s Siri, built into the upcoming Windows 10 operating system. Users can control Cortana with either keyboard or voice commands (“Hey, Cortana”), and use it to perform intelligent searches, retrieve personalized news headlines, view local weather, manage notes and appointments, and more. In this article, Michael Miller, author of The Internet of Things, introduces you to Cortana and discusses its most important features
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There's a lot new in Windows 10, from the return of the (improved) Start menu to a state-of-the-art web browser. But, perhaps, the most interesting new feature is one that's one you've never seen in a desktop operating system before -- a virtual assistant, called Cortana, that helps you retrieve useful information from anywhere on the Internet.

Just what is Cortana, and how does it (she?) work? Read on to find out.

Understanding Cortana

If you're familiar with Apple's Siri or Google's Google Now, then you know what to expect with Microsoft's Cortana. Cortana is a similar type of virtual assistant program that Microsoft is adding to Windows 10 -- on all devices. You'll be able to use Cortana on your Windows 10 PC, your Windows Phone, and your Windows tablet. (For what it's worth, Microsoft also promises Cortana apps for iOS and Android devices.)

If you've never used a virtual assistant app, you're in for a treat. On the surface, Cortana looks and acts like a simple search box. In fact, in Windows 10, you access Cortana from an "Ask me anything" box that resides on the taskbar, just to the right of the Start button. If all you want to do is search for something, you enter your query and Cortana displays the appropriate search results.

Figure 1 The Cortana search box on Windows 10's taskbar.

Except it isn't quite that simple. For one thing, Cortana searches multiple sources. So if you type shoe, for example, Cortana returns results that include documents on your computer that include the word "shoe," apps installed on your computer or available in the Windows store that have the word "shoe" in their names, songs and videos about shoes that you have stored on your PC, shoe-related settings in Windows, and websites that have something to do with shoes. Just click the item you want and Cortana opens it or goes to that website.

Figure 2 Basic search results from Cortana.

That's all well and good, but there's nothing really special about that; the search function in Windows 8/8.1 returned multiple-source results, too. (Both the older Windows search and Cortana use Microsoft's Bing search engine for their web-based results.) What's different is that Cortana's results are a bit more relevant than what you got previously. And the results will, over time, become more and more fine-tuned to your own personal needs.

That's because Cortana learns as it goes. The app takes notes of what you search for and uses that information to tailor its suggestions for you. As time goes by, you'll find that Cortana's top results better match what you're actually searching for.

Cortana is more than just an intelligent search engine, however. Just as Cortana learns from your searches, it also learns from everything else you do on your PC -- your interests, favorites, and friends -- and then uses that information to suggest new information and manage your activities. You can use Cortana to set reminders, organize your appointments, and answer general questions. Ask Cortana to "remind me about Bob's birthday," "play something by James Taylor," or "how far is it to the moon?" and it will do exactly what you ask.

As Cortana learns more about you, the information it provides becomes more predictive. Instead of just plotting driving directions to a given location, it will alert you when traffic delays require you to leave earlier. You'll get notice of your favorite performers coming to town, and receive reminders when your friends' birthdays are coming up.

And, just like Siri and Google Now, you can communicate with Cortana via both keyboard and voice commands. You can type your queries into the "Ask me anything" box, or speak into your computer's microphone. If you use voice commands, Cortana will respond in kind, in a pleasing female voice.

(By the way, Cortana is named after the artificial intelligence character of the same name in Microsoft's Halo video games -- and voiced by Jen Taylor, the same voice actress.)

Cortana is also being integrated into the new web browser (code-named Spartan) set to be included with Windows 10. When you visit certain websites, Cortana will display relevant information in a sidebar on the right side of the browser. For example, if you visit a company's website, Cortana might display key metrics about that company -- location, hours, and that sort of thing. You can also use Cortana to search for additional information from within a web page. Just highlight a word or phrase, right-click, and select Ask Cortana. Results are displayed in the Cortana sidebar.

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