Virtual assistants are going to make our lives much easier. Someday, they will be able to book tickets, order stuff on Amazon, and even arrange meetings with the entire office.
I’m looking forward to that day, but I’m not sure Microsoft got the memo about this trend. Or maybe they got the memo but lost it on OneDrive? I tested out Cortana on the Apple iPhone 6S recently. The app has a boatload of bugs, doesn’t really do anything that novel, and almost seems like it was put together in an afternoon by a temp programmer from TaskRabbit who can also wash your car.
The core problem is that Cortana really doesn't do that much and she’s not really that intelligent. If you ask her “Who is Barack Obama?” she will show you a few links from Wikipedia, that's it. She doesn't even answer. Unlike the Google app, which understands context, Cortana doesn’t understand follow-up questions at all. If you ask “When was he born?” she pops up a listing for a Christmas album. Huh?
The app is riddled with bugs. If you ask about your schedule next week, you’ll see a list of appointments, but when you press Back to return to the main Cortana screen, the app crashes. I repeated this a few times and it always crashes. It’s also worth mentioning that, when I asked what I was doing in January of next year, Cortana was unable to determine that I am going to CES in Las Vegas...and that I have 45 meetings scheduled. How is that assisting me in any way?
Cortana can send a text message, but don’t bother. She pops up a message asking for the contact, but if you type in a name, nothing happens.
The worst bug of all is that Cortana runs incredibly slow. By the time you ask a question about how to get to the drug store across town, you’ll be...across town at the drug store. The word “thinking” comes up for any query and stays there for at least a few seconds but in some cases a full minute. After a while, I’d usually just hit the X to cancel. In a few cases, the word never went away and I had to close the app. If you press the small microphone to ask a question, it might not work. You usually have to press the icon a few times. It just seems slow and buggy so far.
Cortana is also pretty dumb. If you say the word “settings” she shows you a link for Windows Help settings. In fact, there are really only three useful functions. You can ask for the weather forecast, set reminders, and use the Notepad, which is basically a concierge for local events, entertainment, and tracking FedEx packages. The problem with the Notepad on an iPhone is that you are not really that concerned about a deep dive or having information fed to you, which might make sense on Windows 10 or maybe a tablet. The assistant needs to be much more interactive.
Both Siri and the Google app do a better job of acting like an assistant. I haven’t had a chance to test it (I don’t like in Silicon Valley where it’s available) but the Facebook M assistant on Messenger can dialogue with you and even ask you follow-up questions. Cortana is really just a voice app for finding out the weather and when a sports team plays next. It's a bit like having a voice-enabled version of Yelp.
Virtual assistants like this fall into a strange in-between void of uselessness. They are somewhat helpful. The problem is that, until they are extremely helpful, they are just a novelty. You use them for a while and show your friends some tricks, but then you never use them again. That’s even true of Siri for the most part, although I use it for getting directions quite a bit. I even forget to use the Google app.
But Cortana? I’m going to wait until Microsoft gets their act together.
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