Microsoft's first major update to Windows 10, its latest desktop operating system, arrived on Thursday with a little treat for Canadians: a digital assistant program named Cortana that tries to reflect our national personality.
Cortana is Microsoft's answer to voice-activated systems like Apple's Siri and Google Now, performing such tasks as calendar scheduling, searching the Web, or activating music or weather apps. Cortana was originally developed for Microsoft's unpopular Windows Phones, but it migrated to the desktop with the July 29 release of Windows 10.
Initially, Cortana was available in select countries (the United States, Britain and Germany among others). But with the Thursday update, English Canadians, Australians and Japanese users can access the chatty software, only now with a little bit of local flavour. French Canada will have to wait until 2016.
Mike Calcagno, partner director for the product at Microsoft, was charged with making Cortana more Canadian and says ours is optimized for politeness. "She'll sometimes say sorry, even when she hasn't done something that warrants an apology. … She's aware of that stereotype."
In July, Microsoft's Susan Hendrich, a founding member of the Cortana team, said that in China, Cortana was more like a big sister. In Britain, they wanted a formal, professional tone, and in the United States, a warmer, friendlier Cortana was developed.
"It's not a radically different assistant for every country," Mr. Calcagno says.
It's not clear how many Canadians even have Windows 10 installed; Microsoft doesn't break down national numbers. The company has said there are 110 million Windows 10 machines in use now, of which 12 million are in enterprise settings.
Many of the localizing optimizations are prosaic, if important, such as getting Cortana to properly pronounce local place names or famous Canadian names. Things such as metric-versus-Imperial measurements are also customizable by user (so you're not stuck figuring out kilometres and Celsius if you're a U.S. expatriate in Canada). Cortana knows all the local sports teams and has instant access to scores, but to avoid taking sides in any rivalries, the software is programmed not to pick a favourite hockey sweater, expressing a preference for Team Canada but not for the Leafs or Canucks.
Ms. Hendrich suggests that Canadians might enjoy asking what Cortana's favourite vehicle is, because the software will reply, "I like the smooth ride of a Zamboni."
Mr. Calcagno says the team tried to replicate Canadians' famously dry wit, but was quick to reassure that "it's not a bunch of engineers cooking up jokes." There is a team of people – screenwriters and playwrights who work for Microsoft – who get to look at the requests users make to Cortana and try to fashion new replies. The result is that even over time, week to week and month to month, Cortana will have locally relevant answers, intelligent responses and even current humour.
For the most part, Cortana requires an Internet connection to pull down real-time information, although some features will be available offline. For instance, many of the users with early access to Cortana have used the voice controls to search for buried PC functions, such as the Wi-Fi menu, or even just to pull out the calculator.
So far, most users rely on Cortana to be the calendar cop, reminding them of upcoming appointments and potential conflicts. In future, Mr. Calcagno would like to see even more integration of apps and services so that Cortana could, say, order an Uber ride ahead of your cross-town meeting, or pull up a restaurant delivery app if you're late for dinner. All with those little human touches.
"The Canadian Cortana is really playful. She doesn't take herself too seriously," Mr. Calcagno says.