Where is Microsoft's answer to personal assistants?

Chase Bonar
 from  Winter Springs, FL
| January 19, 2013

In my last editorial, To the Smartphone haters of the Web, I touched on certain aspects of each platform in the mobile OS playground. Though Microsoft has perfected graceful day-to-day operation and harbored a simple in-and-out "git'er'done" mentality, there is still a lack of user engagement that the other two mobile powerhouses offer. Even Samsung has introduced a similar version of voice recognition that is a solid attempt at bringing functionality exclusively to its Galaxy S line.

I am talking about our intelligent personal assistants of choice: Google Now, Siri, and to a certain extent, S Voice.

At the present time, Windows Phone 8 (Apollo) is a solid option for iPhone users who want to maintain a sense of iOS fluidity without sacrificing usability. Windows can offer a fresh, new experience with its organized Live Tiles and simple interface for an iPhone user willing to make the jump to a younger ecosystem. To an Android user, Microsoft’s platform also presents a solid argument if you want a fresh dose of new, and are looking to get the most out of your phone for what it is: a purpose-driven smartphone that is capable yet focused. To either user, Windows Phone 8 is convincing on multiple levels, so as long as you can leave behind your need for companionship.

Before I continue, let's not forget one of the many ways Samsung sold us with its Galaxy S III. Samsung exclusively launched S Voice, a voice recognition service not unlike Siri, to mixed reviews. It simply did not hold any weight to Apple's offering, but at least Samsung tried.

And to be perfectly clear, Siri is more of a companion than a personal assistant. She's the friend you talk to when you need to know what the best phone is (it's probably the one you're holding), figure out the meaning of life (that's easy, it's a philosophical question…), and tell you if you're fat, or not (I prefer not to say). She's Apple's mobile public relations commander that flirts. Knowing this, we are clearly dealing with more than a personal assistant. After all, Apple marketed Siri as the main differentiator to its aging iPhone 4S, which was a big gamble due its (at the time) beta functionality. Yes, she will set up appointments and remind you when they are; yes, she can make phone calls and send text messages with certain commands; and yes, you can ask and receive answers to questions. So, yes, everything is fine and dandy with your Apple companion.

Over in Mountain View, Google has cooked up Google Now. I like to think of Google Now as a robotic girlfriend (if you're into that) who's extremely helpful, but won't ever know you, or what you are. You're getting a daily planner without the pages. Sometimes I feel like Google Now could have at least attempted to incorporate some emotions, or feelings, but I understand why they kept it strictly platonic. Anyway, you're getting an interactive daily planner that filters your search history, emails, and patterns of travel to increase productivity in your life. It's supremely helpful and powerful. It really makes me wonder how I ever survived without it. As we speak, Google Now lists under its "Nearby Events" that Jerry Seinfeld is performing tomorrow near me. Although I'm not interested, Google cares about my lonesome nights behind a keyboard.

That's quite the message you're sending, Google.

To be completely candid with you, reader, I'm not sure how Windows Phone 8 can gain any more momentum without Bingy, or whatever Microsoft would name its personal assistant. It could be argued that Audible is Apollo's answer to the question, but it's obvious once you use Audible that Microsoft isn't going full steam ahead with personal assistants. For now, it’s only a priority to third-party app developers, which may hold the OS back in the long run.

One would imagine that Microsoft’s acquisition of the "voice portal" company TellMe would have been exploited to the extent that Apple did with it’s acquisition of SRI International, which serves as the premise for Siri, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, TellMe was mostly used for speech-to-text development which is prevalent throughout Apollo, but it’s limited in that sense.

There is one reason Microsoft hasn’t been able to put a companion in your pocket and that is Microsoft’s dedication to the PC market. With tablet competition heating up and Windows RT popping up on more and more devices, it's clear what they're focusing on: licensing.

The problem with licensing a young software in such a volatile market where competitive advantages matter is manufacturers will only license a product that offers advantages over competitors. With each and every iteration of Android and iOS, a “feature” is offered that wasn’t available before. Apple put Siri on the new (new) iPad, and Google Now made its debut on the Nexus 7, so where is the Windows RT Siri-equivalent?

Among a lack of a Google Now, or Siri competitor, Windows Phone 8 also scores low for user engagement.

I feel Microsoft has much to learn when it comes to overall engagement and to an extent, happiness. Certain things make certain people happy, but at least there’s personality with Siri (ask her what the plot of Blade Runner is), and Google Now makes sure you know about Nearby Events so you always have something to plan. It wouldn't hurt to bring a little fun back to the smartphone. Isn’t social media proving we want to stay connected all the time? WP8 is centered solely around getting in and out and maintaining your daily activities, but we are spending more and more time counting pixels and snapping pictures than ever.

I can’t help but wonder what the marketing team of the Windows Phone 8 skydiving commercial were thinking.

You're skydiving? Cool. Keep falling.

Is it too much to ask for to want to use my smartphone to its full capacity? You have support for dual core processors, high-resolution displays, and a dedicated camera button – all good things! Now if I only knew how high the 2.4 liter V8 in Ferrari's F2012 revs. What do I do when I need to know good Sushi around my area? How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Seriously. We need answers.

Don't get me wrong, reader, I'm looking to pick up the unnamed HTC device running Apollo whenever Sprint launches it. I feel I could use a change. I'm even looking to pick up an Ultrabook with Windows 8 on it. My main gripe with WP8 from the outside looking in is the mentality of the OS. In the day and age where we login to Facebook more on our phones than we do on our computers, send text messages and emoticons instead of make phone calls, and where we keep extra batteries by our sides to make sure our beloved devices don't run out of juice, Microsoft is thinking about giving you all the information you need front-and-center without any reason to be curious.

You could say Apple brought life to the grid of apps by letting you talk to your phone. Google gave Jelly Bean real ammo with Google Now. Now what do I do with WP8? Have I taken a dive off the deep-end, Dear Reader? Did I wake up on the wrong side of the bed? Am I just a tough customer? Let me know how you feel about my take on Windows Phone devices and if you think it could mean a better (or worse) future for Microsoft in the comments below! I'm sure someone in Redmond will be listening.