When Microsoft announced that Cortana, its Siri-like speech recognition search app, had moved from a closed to public beta for Android, my initial reaction was to wonder why this would interest Android users who already have access to the extremely useful Google Now on their phones and tablets. But then I learned most of the original Google Now team has left in frustration, because Google’s new CEO doesn’t consider it a priority product as Google co-founder Larry Page had.
You could argue this isn’t a cause for concern, since Google is a large company with many extremely talented people. But Google also has a history of killing off projects which it decides are not important. You can refer to Slate’s Google Graveyard if you would like to pay your respects to a long-lost Google favorite of yours.
So, having this information in hand, it seemed like a good idea to take a closer look at Microsoft’s Cortana for Android public beta. Before I get skewered in the comments, yes, I kept in mind that it is a beta release, and that Microsoft might be unable to create the kind of deep integration that Google can give its own products.
The first thing I noticed is that Cortana is only compatible with the Android phones I have on hand. It’s not compatible with my Android tablets. All the devices are running Android 4.0 or newer, so the issue lies elsewhere. In addition, Microsoft notes some features that aren’t available in this beta release: “…Toggling settings, opening apps, or invoking Cortana hands-free by saying ‘Hey Cortana’ are only available on Windows for now.”
Like Google Now, Cortana shows items of possible interest such as news, package delivery, stock prices, weather, and, at the time of this writing, nearby places to have lunch. However, although I confirmed it can access my calendar (“show me my calendar”), it does not display events for today on its home screen. Less surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to be accessing flight itinerary information in my Gmail Inbox the way Google Now does (and is currently showing for an incoming flight I am tracking as I write this). I haven’t tried placing the itinerary information in Outlook.com to determine if Cortana would integrate information from that source.
Cortana is supposed to be able to create reminders based on location. However, I was not able to set anything other than a reminder for time of day. Nor did Cortana appear to have a way to set location concepts like “home” and “office” in its “Getting Around” Notebook setting.
On the other hand, Cortana does have settings for various topics of interest that it refers to as part of a Notebook, which can be set on your Windows 10 PC as well as your Android phone. This assumes, of course, that you use the same Microsoft account (Hotmail or Outlook.com, for example) on both devices. These topics include Eat & Drink, Events, Finance, Getting Around, Meetings & Reminders, Movies & TV, News, Packages, Sports, Travel, and Weather. I found that navigating in the Cortana Notebook is much slower on the Android phone than on my Windows 10 notebook. In my tests, both were connected to the same relatively fast cable modem Internet connection over the same WiFi access point.
All told, while Cortana for Android has significant content overlap with Google Now, it does not have some of the operational functionality Android users already have with Google Now. I expect some of these functions will show up as Microsoft moves Cortana for Android through its beta test phase and into production. But other functions may require switching from Google services to Microsoft ones (such as Outlook Calendar).
If it turns out Google is in fact letting Google Now stagnate — as it has with Google Voice in the past few years — then Microsoft Cortana is worth keeping an eye on as it evolves into a richer, more full-featured product over time.
If you would like to try Cortana out on your Android phone today, head over Google Play to sign up for the beta test.
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