Microsoft is definitely bringing Cortana, its digital assistant, to other mobile operating systems, starting with Android. But would you choose Cortana over Siri or Google Now, the assistants that are already deeply integrated into your phone’s software? Here’s why you probably won’t.
Peter Bright reports for Ars Technica that Microsoft promised in May that it would bring Cortana to iOS and Android, and the Android version of the Cortana app has been leaked, apparently by a user of an invite-only beta. At this early stage, the idea of making Cortana available on platforms other than Windows seems to be that users of Windows PCs will depend on the assistant on desktop, and so will want her to be available on their phones, regardless of which mobile operating system they’ve chosen. The problem, of course, is that Cortana will be deeply integrated into Windows Phone, while on Android and iOS the assistant will simply be an app and will be subject to the corresponding limitations.
However, Bright reports that Microsoft has managed to make Cortana on Android “pretty close to Cortana in Windows 10, Windows Phone, and Windows 10 Mobile.” When you install the app, it asks for “a ton of permissions,” including the ability read and send SMS messages, place calls, access contacts, calendars, accounts, and more. When you open the app, it looks nearly identical to the Windows 10 PC equivalent. The assistant’s knowledge and configuration continues to be driven by the “Notebook,” and Cortana can offer alerts and information on the same types of topics, like weather, places to eat, traffic conditions, or even warnings on when it’s time to leave for an appointment.
There are a few gaps in Cortana’s functionality on Android so far, such as her inability to read emails or listen to music. Her usual Quiet Hours functionality, which mutes incoming calls and messages when you’re busy or asleep, and the corresponding Inner Circle feature, which allows some calls to break through, are also missing. But Microsoft can extend Cortana’s abilities at any time, since the majority of what Cortana does happens in the cloud.
A more significant problem stems from making software that’s, so far, been integrated into an operating system into an app for another platform. Because Cortana on Android is just an app, it lacks the sort of integration that Microsoft is experimenting with on its own platforms, such as integration with the Edge web browser. For a user who depends both on Android and on the larger Google ecosystem, the built-in Google Now assistant is a better integrated and more capable choice of a personal assistant. For a user who comes to depend on Cortana on Windows 10, the Cortana app could be valuable, but Google Now offers equivalents of many Cortana Features. Users are likely to find that the best experience involves using both personal assistants where they’ll function best.
And Android, clearly, is not where Cortana functions best. Android Authority reports that the early build of the Cortana app for Android “can perform most of the same tasks Google Now and Siri can do, but not much more than that.” Though the experience of using the app is better than what the reviewers expected at such an early stage, the list of Cortana’s shortcomings so far exceeds the list of its strengths.
Even though Microsoft is likely to iron out many of the issues with future builds of the Cortana app, even this early build illustrates that it’s difficult to successfully launch a voice assistant on another platform. For Android users who don’t own a Windows 10 computer or also use a Windows Phone, Cortana likely won’t be a must-have app unless Microsoft equips it with impressive, headlining features that other voice assistants like Google Now and Siri don’t have.
The current push on the frontier of digital assistants is turning them from passive assistants, to which you need to address questions, into active ones, which can anticipate the information you need and deliver it when you need it. This is a difficult enough task to accomplish with an assistant that’s deeply integrated into a smartphone’s operating system, and even harder to achieve with one that doesn’t have access to the same depth of information about your web history, your correspondence, your schedule, and your contacts.