Tag Archives: Cortana

Hey! I’m Talking To You

Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick predicted it with 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal 9000 computer, as people interacted with the machine by voice commands. “Open the pod bay doors, Hal” has given way in today’s world to “Alexa, read my mail.” “Ok, Google, play my music.” “Hey, Cortana, what’s on my schedule?” “Hey, Siri, how’s the weather?” and “Bixby, check my stocks.”

More and more people have found themselves uttering something along these lines lately as digital assistants are becoming more ubiquitous in daily life. These features are not just an outcropping of cell phones, but have actually become stand alone services; some with separate devices that operate independent of a phone or tablet.

Apple started the trend when they launched Siri on the iPhone 4S with iOS 5. Several programmers tried to copy Siri for Android phones, but none met with the success Apple enjoyed. Samsung launched S-voice shortly after with the Galaxy S-3, but it’s was not widely accepted by users. There were a few app developers that tried to make device agnostic personal assistants for phones, but none met with Siri’s success. Until Google.

Google’s voice to text system is built into every Android system and works every bit as reliably as Siri. Android-based phones, even phones who try to add their own voice command systems, can access the Google voice system by saying “OK, Google.” It is cloud based, but also backed up by a dedicated team of people who constantly monitor the voice traffic to ensure even the most mumble mouthed commands get understood.

The battle might have remained between Siri and Google had Amazon not expanded the border conflict beyond phone handsets when they introduced the Echo. The small canister shaped device is essentially a voiced-operated, sound-based internet device with no visual user interface aside from a glowing ring. The flagship device is about 7 inches tall with omni-directional, far-field microphones and an adequate speaker for listening to music. It’s assistant is Alexa and users can access the system simply by calling her name. No need to push a button, or even use an interjection like “Hey” or “OK.”

Windows has entered the fray with Cortana, first introduced on Windows 8 phones, then on all versions of Windows 10 for phone, tablet or PC. While Siri, Google and Alexa have voices that are computer generated, Cortana’s voice is that of an actual human being. The name and the voice are taken from Microsoft’s hugely successful Halo game series.

I have tried these systems and, after wrestling with the burgeoning tech for more than a year, I have come to some conclusions. The tech is here to stay. The real question is which one is the best and most successful in what it does. I’ve lined up the five I have tried.

Number 5. With the launch of the Galaxy S-8, Samsung revamped their failed S-voice experiment, added some features and rebranded it as Bixby and have included it on every handset since, clearly aiming to be the Siri for Android. Or at least for the Galaxy line of phones, anyway. Bixby is no longer just the personal assistant, it now drives all Text to Voice applications on the Galaxy line. Sadly, though, it doesn’t do it well.

Of all the voice assistants, Bixby falls flattest. I have used Bixby in my brand new Galaxy Note 8 and just today fully disabled it from the phone. Its engine is slow to respond, does not accurately render the text that is spoken, even when it is spoken slowly and clearly, and often generates gibberish, spelling out the punctuation instead of adding it correctly period (.)

Number 4. Cortana is not bad, but not as robust as the others. Perhaps because its responses are recorded and not generated, or perhaps because it doesn’t have a cadre of technicians monitoring the inputs, but often, Cortana defaults to a generic web search (using Bing—the Bixby of web search engines) for its returns. She does understand better than Bixby, she just doesn’t do as much as Siri or Google, and she is a bit slower rendering the text.

Number 3. I use an iphone for work, but rarely actually use it for anything other than checking my work email, so I am not dependant on Siri. I have experimented with her to see how accurate she is in her text renderings, and she is useful in that regard. I don’t, however, miss her when I don’t use the phone. Even if one has a smart home system that Siri can control, it still requires the iPhone or iPad to do it, because there is no stand alone device for Siri yet. I hear there is talks to incorporate Siri into the Apple TV remote. Perhaps that will be an improvement. I’ll let all the Apple acolytes defend her position in the voice assistant rankings, but for my list, she is in the middle.

Number 2. The real battle for dominance is for the two assistants that are not bound to hand sets. Google just launched their Google Home product line with devices almost identical to the Amazon Echo. These devices now work just like the Google app on the phone, but without a web browser interface. It has the same network that gives Google its dominance in the web search market and it is amazingly accurate in how it listens and interprets voice. Using the phone, a user can watch the app correct a listening mistake to provide the correct information or perform the desired action. Google rarely makes a mistake in the voice interpretation. It does make mistakes in the results, however, just like it always has. But those mistakes are very few and far between.

Number 1. Alexa was designed by Amazon to work with users’ Amazon accounts. Remember that Amazon is, first and foremost, a shopping retailer. It seems Echo’s goal was similar to the goal of the Dash buttons; to make it quick and easy to order things from Amazon. With the Echo, one can order and play new music from the Prime playlists, reorder any item in the users order history and access the Amazon Prime video system to playback on smart TV or the Amazon Echo View device. If this was where the system stopped, it would rank below Siri in its usability, but Amazon didn’t stop there. With the Echo, Amazon opened the API to developers to create what Amazon calls “Skills” for Alexa. Echo can interact with Samsung’s Smartthings system for home automation, access iHeart radio stations, play games and many more things. On top of those things, Amazon gave Alexa some personality too. She responds to “Good Morning” with some interesting tidbits of information for the day. She tells jokes and even sings songs.

As technology creeps ever further into our daily lives, many people become more dependent on the services systems like these offer. My home has sensors that turn lights on automatically, preventing the stubbed toe from fumbling around in the middle of the night in the dark, interconnected thermostat so I can monitor and adjust the temperature from anywhere, and connected door locks that alert me when they are opened, or that I can lock and unlock from anywhere. Will we come to the day where society comes to a grinding halt if the systems go down? Some people will lose their minds when their assistants disappear into the cloud from whence they came, I have no doubt. I like to think I can adapt and get by without Cortana and Alexa if they go down. But for some, they live in fear of Skynet taking over.

“OK, Google, set the thermostat to 72 degrees.”

“I’m sorry, but the Government has mandated a minimum of 76 degrees for energy conservation.”

Or worse, finding themselves locked out of their homes.

“Alexa, open the front door.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Like Dave Bowman, the sole survivor of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I still know how to pull the plug.

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Every Other Update

I’m not much of an early adopter anymore. Too many times I have been burned by “not ready for prime-time” products and updates. Now, I usually wait for the second or third iterations before making any technology changes. I made an exception this time, for Windows 10. I have found that Microsoft gets updates right about half of the time; usually on every other version. Time will tell if I chose wisely or not, but I have been playing with it long enough to form some initial impressions.

My Surface Pro 2 came with Windows 8.1 Pro installed and it took a couple of weeks for me to adapt to the new touch-designed interface, which has been called Metro, Touch and Tile World at various times since its launch. Microsoft figured that all personal computing was going to the tablet/touch interfaces commanded by iOS and Android, and they wanted to gain a piece of that market. They banked on that idea so much that they completely lost the traditional Windows desktop that has commanded computing since 1994. Public outcry was such that Microsoft quickly brought the desktop back to Windows 8 as a patch, which effectively split the user experience in two, leaving many to complain that 8.1 suffered from dual personality syndrome. Even so, I had a grasp of the nuances and managed to get my Surface to work for what I need it to do, though I was still missing the simplified user experience of Windows 7.

Microsoft, evidently wishing to distance itself from its Metro mistake, completely skipped Windows 9 and redesigned the entire OS for its newest update. The biggest news about the upgrade, however, was not the return to the desktop—a welcome piece of news for windows users, to be sure—but that the upgrade would be free. Free, that is, for those who are upgrading from 7 or 8 and do so within a one-year time limit from the release. Those who are still running XP or Vista (why would anyone be?) are out of luck.

This also means that all future upgrades are also free. Microsoft announced that there will be no more “Versions” of Windows, merely updates and patches. This is similar to Apple’s Macintosh OS stopping with OS X, even though there are constant updates for that system. Microsoft will not be losing money, to be sure. They have figured out a way to monetize OS usage by collecting user data. More on that later.

So, I upgraded my tablet the day after the release. The update process was simple and painless for me, although some Norton users complained that they lost their antivirus and had to go through some hoops to get it back. I had no such problem. My Norton immediately updated itself upon completion of the initial Windows 10 setup process.

Most of my configurations remained, such as my desktop image and icons. Users boot right onto the desktop just like previous versions, with the tiled Metro start screen now popping up as the start menu from the Windows button. Gone is the 2-App limitation on multitasking that Metro imposed on us; back is the multiple windows on the task bar. Now some of the touch-specific niceties of the Metro interface are also gone, such as the charms and the swipe to close/minimize feature. Closing is back to clicking the X in the upper right corner where it has always been. I had gotten so used to swiping down to close windows, that I kept dragging windows below the task bar and having to work to get them up and closed. I’m almost over that now.

Swiping in from the right used to bring up the charms, but that feature has been replaced by what I think is one of the biggest improvements in Windows: the notifications panel. In Windows 8, metro social apps like Facebook and Twitter kept a process running in the background to update their live tiles on the start screen. They still do this, but now they also show up in the notifications panel, and they remain there until the user clears them. This functionality is not new to mobile users—phones have had this for years—but Windows has never embraced it for computer users until now.

Windows also has included a built in mail app that can be configured for any POP3 or iMAP4 service. Yahoo, Gmail, and Hotmail can appear right beside ISP/work email in the same streamlined client, which alerts the user of new mail in the notifications panel. For those who use a web-based calendar like Google or hotmail, reminders for appointments and tasks also appear in the notification panel alongside any alarms the user might set.

Even with those updates, the biggest improvement for Windows might have to be Cortana. Apple launched Siri several years ago to the amazement of the mobile world. Google followed suit a few years later and there have even been some independent personal assistants like S-voice on Samsung phones. Windows developed Cortana to compete in that market, and rather than program a life-like computer-generated speech synthesizer, Microsoft employed an actual human actress to record her voice for the digital assistant.

Cortana is actually the name of a character in Microsoft’s game series Halo. In the game, a computer AI is named Cortana and is one of the antagonists for the hero. The voice became so popular that Microsoft decided to make Cortana real. Now Windows users can talk to their computers by simply addressing them with “Hey, Cortana.” Doing so will open a voice search window where a user can speak search terms, ask about the weather, inquire as to the day’s schedule, check email or even ask Cortana to tell a joke.

Again, Siri users will say “Been there, done that,” and they would be correct. In fact, Siri is still a bit more intuitive than Cortana, who opens web browsers to Bing for simple questions way too often for my taste. I can only expect that Microsoft will improve the service as time goes on.

Now for the concerns. In order for Cortana to work, the computer’s microphone has to be on all the time, and the network connection must also be active all the time. While this is a drain on the battery, it also means everything that is audible in the vicinity can be picked up and transmitted to Microsoft’s servers. Again, this is no different from Siri or Google, so many people won’t mind. But with all these voice recognition programs and devices, more personal data is being transmitted, collected and used by tech companies to gather information on users for marketing purposes. Some privacy advocates may be bothered by this.

Since Windows 10 is “free,” Microsoft has put a lot of data gathering tools embedded deep in the system. There are several places to find the settings for them and they are not easy to find and they are not together in the same place. Concerned users can opt out of all the data collection if they so choose, but Cortana will stop working if they do.

So, overall, Windows 10 is a step up, continuing the trend of good upgrades skipping a version. 95 good, 98 bad, 98 second edition good, ME bad, XP good, Vista bad, 7 good, 8 bad, 10… well, we’ll see if it ends up being as good as the first two weeks seem to indicate. One of my friends posted that her newly upgraded desktop locked up on Windows 10, which may be more of a problem with the fact that it is a cobbled system, rather than an out of the box computer. I am on a Microsoft-built device, so it may be that my good experience is owing to tight development between Microsoft hardware and software. So far, so good.

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