Microsoft Phones Adding Cortana Digital Assistant

CEO Satya Nadella unveils Windows Phone 8.1, promises cloud and mobile innovations.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella walks in front of the new Cortana logo as he delivers a keynote address during the 2014 Microsoft Build developer's conference on April 2, 2014 in San Francisco.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella introduced digital phone assistant Cortana during a keynote address at the 2014 Microsoft Build developer's conference on Wednesday in San Francisco.

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella tried to rally the tech community around a bright vision for the company Wednesday by unveiling software that included the digital phone assistant Cortana, named for the artificial intelligence from the hit “Halo” game franchise on Xbox.

During the Microsoft Build developer’s conference, new chief executive Nadella promised better apps to compete with Google on tablets and software updates to keep Windows vibrant for developers, following his recent announcement that Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will at last become available for the iPad. Microsoft unveiled Cortana as part of Windows Phone 8.1, which will start rolling out to current Windows Phone 8 users “over the coming months,” according to a news release.

Windows Phone 8.1  features include
Action Center to coordinate notifications, Senses to manage data use and simplified management for business apps and services. Microsoft touts Cortana as the “first truly personal digital assistant” that learns the behavior and needs of each user, seeking information that interests users throughout the day on the Bing search engine and filtering out the rest.

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Cortana launch screen
Cortana launch screen

“Cortana will launch shortly in the U.S. as a beta, in the U.K. and China in the second half of 2014, and in other countries in 2015,” the news release said.

During a question period Wednesday about the future of the company, Cortana asked Nadella a “Halo” joke.

“Now that you’re chief executive officer, would you like to become a Master Chief Executive Officer?” Cortana asked.

“Sure, remind me to become Master Chief in 500 years,” Nadella said, nodding to the “Halo” game's setting in the distant future.

Microsoft remains profitable despite the decline of the PC market that was once its foundation, but its outgoing CEO, Steve Ballmer, failed to take advantage of the rise of mobile and cloud technologies since 2000, which is a mistake Nadella is trying to avoid.

During his keynote on Wednesday, Nadella repeated that the company has a “mobile-first, cloud-first” mission in a move to regain ground in those areas after the Ballmer years, as more devices connect to the Internet and software becomes more open-source and available for app developers.  

“We were a tools company before we were a Windows company,” Nadella said. “We are in that sort of era again.”

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Buying startups and their staff is one way tech giants have been competing in the race to innovate the next big thing. The Microsoft Ventures startup funding group is “small today,” but Nadella said the company plans to expand it, and that it already has accelerator campuses to work with small tech companies in areas that include Seattle, Berlin, India and China.

“Engaging the startup community in Silicon Valley and elsewhere is a big priority for us,” Nadella said.

Asserting that “everything we do is going to get more digitized” and that the company would pay greater attention to “techniques like machine learning,” Nadella ended the keynote when Cortana asked, “Would you like some exit music?”

Nadella said to Cortana, “Sure, play ‘It’s Time’ by Imagine Dragons,” and he walked offstage with the help of some tunes from his new personal assistant.