Here Comes Windows 9’s Killer App

Microsoft plans to publicly unveil Windows 9 on September 30th at a special event in San Francisco. The invitation sent to those of us in the press said: “Join us to hear what’s next for Windows and the enterprise.”

The company should roll out a “Windows Technical Preview” aimed at enterprise customers, developers and power users. The press got to preview the “Preview” in the form of leaked screenshots and videos.

In one video, we saw a new Start menu that comes with the addition of Live Tiles, a virtual desktop feature and—in keeping with trends across all major desktop and mobile operating systems—a revamped Notification Center.

There will be other benefits and improvements as well, but one update stands above them all: The coming integration of Cortana. The German blog WinFuture published screenshots this week showing Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant in Windows 9.

The expansion of Cortana from Windows Phone to desktop Windows has been widely rumored. But the reports have not dealt with the implications for business and technology managers.

Before we talk about the impact of Cortana, let’s back up and look at the virtual assistant category. There are currently just two somewhat widely used mainstream virtual assistant features: Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google Now.

Each of these is both brilliant and flawed in its own way. Siri is more “human like”—more convincing as a virtual person. And it integrates nicely with a small number of Apple-selected services, such as Wolfram-Alpha.

Google Now performs the magic of preemption. It reads your Gmail, watches your Web surfing habits and checks your calendar to pop up super-relevant cards out of the blue. For example, Google Now notices that airline confirmation you got in your inbox some time ago, then, at just the right time, it reminds you to get going to the airport (based on real-time traffic information).

What’s interesting about both Siri and Google Now is that both are primarily smartphone- and tablet-accessible. Apple uses Siri in its CarPlay dashboard platform. Google also built Google Now into its Chrome browser.

Virtual Assistants Should Be ‘Ambient’

Of all the computing platforms in our lives—and the ones coming to our lives soon—smartphones and tablets are the least virtual-assistant friendly. The reason is that, ultimately, virtual assistants should be “ambient.” That means you just talk—no fishing the device out of a pocket or purse—and the assistant does things, finds out information and answers questions.

Wearable computing devices are better, theoretically, than smartphones and tablets for virtual assistants because they’re actually on you and can be activated with a simple gesture. For example, with Android Wear, just raising the wrist and saying, “OK Google,” activates Google Now.

With both Siri and Google Now on a smartphone, you have to fish your phone out, then explicitly remember to use the assistant. Instead of it just “being there,” it’s essentially an app that has to be deliberately launched and used. (It’s not an arduous task with an iPhone, as you simply press the home button.) This is the simple reason why the vast majority of smartphone users don’t use Siri or Google Now with any sort of regularity.

Ultimately, the most ambient application for virtual assistants will happen when they’re built into our environments—our homes, cars and offices. I do mean and, not or. Imagine a world in which an always-listening microphone connected to a human-like virtual assistant is in every room we enter and is also built into our watches. That’s the world we’re rapidly approaching.

As the technologies behind these virtual assistants become better, more powerful, faster, more accurate and more reliable, talking to them will become our primary user interface to the Internet, as well as to our own personal information and communications.

Some people have had glimpses of this world. For example, Moto X users have the ability to just talk to their phone (assuming they’re out of their pockets or purses at the time) because the phone is always listening. And Ferrari buyers in Italy are getting Apple’s CarPlay, with integrated Siri.

But here’s the thing: Most people aren’t Moto X owners or Italian Ferrari drivers. However, most people in the business world are Windows users, and that’s why Cortana is so interesting.

In the quest to have ambient virtual assistants everywhere for everybody, Cortana on Windows is a major step forward because it puts an ambient virtual assistant in your office, home and laptop.