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Cortana is the codename for the forthcoming intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator for Windows Phone 8.1. The technology is expected to be added to Windows 8.x and the Xbox One in the future. It builds off of Microsoft’s current voice technology called TellMe, purchased by Microsoft in 2009.

The name ‘Cortana’ comes from the fictional, artificially intelligent (AI) character in the Halo video game series. It was first spotted in June 2013 in the Windows Phone Central forums, appearing as ‘zCortana’ from a developer device that was accidentally sold to a non-Microsoft employee.

Naming and Voicing Controversy

Currently, the name Cortana is reserved for the AI in Microsoft’s Halo gaming series. While there is desire to call Microsoft’s next-gen personal assistant Cortana as an official name, it’s not clear that the company will do so, due to numerous marketing and trademark concerns.

As of February 2014, it is not known if Cortana will be the official name or if it will be called something else, when announced in April.

Likewise, an unconfirmed report claimed that Jen Taylor, who currently voices Cortana in Halo, will also voice the knowledge navigator for Windows Phone 8.1. However, this has yet to be verified as accurate.

Look and Feel

While the exact visual representation of Cortana is not yet known due to ongoing changes, some firsthand accounts have described its look and functionality:

“The personality of Cortana is currently represented by a circle graphic that expresses what it's doing (searching, identifying music à la the current Bing music listener built into Windows Phone, etc.) by various animations like spinning, flipping, etc.  …more animations [have] come in over time, and the color is based on your theme color.”

“This Cortana magic will be found throughout the OS and work contextually. For example, let's say I send you an SMS that says like "Want to get dinner tomorrow in Seattle?" You'll see parts of that text message underlined. Click that and you'll be able to instantly enter the info into your calendar with some of those fields already populated. So it would fill "Seattle" as the location, if I had said a time it will already have the time there.”

Currently, Cortana is in wider, internal testing at Microsoft. It is expected to be announced at Build 2014 in April, alongside Windows Phone 8.1.

Daniel Rubino
Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.