A new virtual mobile assistant made her debut at Microsoft’s Build conference last week.

Cortana will be available shortly on smart phones running Windows 8.1 in a bid to give Apple’s Siri a run for attention of lovers of the latest in technology.

And let’s face it — intelligent voice systems are a hoot to show off. A friend of mine who has an Android handset will show off it’s ability to voice search the Internet any time someone in a group raises a question that can’t be answered.

At the conference I interviewed David Salamon, Cortana’s product manager, about the technology and he gave me a demo:

It looks slick, although at the keynote demo there were a few glitches — officially it’s still in beta. Also note that as Cortana links to Microsoft’s Bing search engine, it won’t be available everywhere immediately — it has to be programmed if asked to search for “Italian restaurants,” for example, to look locally.

Unfortunately there’s no Canadian release date yet for Cortana. Europe and parts  of Asia get her first.

IT analyst Rob Enderle told me that in his opinion Cortana does a lot more than Apple’s celebrated Siri and its Android counterparts in terms of managing the life of users. The launch of Cortana “is going to begin an AI (artificial intelligence) war between Google, Microsoft and Apple.”

Whether Cortana will be a differentiator to significantly boost WinPhone sales is a question. The Windows store has far fewer apps than Google, Android and BlackBerry. The only way Microsoft can negate that, Enderle says,  is by making apps a secondary reason for choosing a Windows smart phone and other features — like Cortana — the main reasons . Nokia, for example, has handsets with better cameras and included photo editing software than most competitors.

Apple did the same thing, Enderle points out: It made people think that, unlike a BlackBerry, a smart phone could be used for entertainment.



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