Escape From Xbox: Name Review of Microsoft’s Cortana


Microsoft has thrown its hat into the smartphone virtual-assistant ring. Introducing, Cortana, the Siri-like digital assistant that debuts with Windows Phone 8.1.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Cortana is a character—a virtual assistant, in fact—from the video game mega-franchise Halo (made exclusively for Microsoft’s Xbox). “Cortana” began as the code name for the phone-assistant project because of the similarity to the Halo character, but after an extremely positive reaction from internal developers and engineers, a leak of the code name to the public, and a subsequent petition to keep the name, Cortana is here to stay.

Here at Catchword we sometimes find ourselves having to convince clients to let go of code names (which have a way growing on people by sheer force of repetition), but in Microsoft’s case, keeping Cortana was a reasoned decision. Cortana is a friendly name with a Latinate, techy flair—fitting for a helpful bit of artificial intelligence ever at your beck and call. And the story of Cortana’s humble origins as a code name has created great press for Microsoft, painting the company as both responsive to customers and willing to run with a joke.  And then there’s Cortana’s incredible equity among gamers ages 14-30, some of whom will absolutely abandon their previous allegience to iPhones.

However, might a virtual gaming personality alienate non-gamers? Sure. By far, the most problematic aspect of Halo’s Cortana assistant, as applied to the Windows phone, is that her highly curvaceous, almost nude depiction is obviously intended to appeal to 14-year-old boys (or perhaps, boys up to the age of 30). But so far, Microsoft has rightly avoided using Cortana’s embodied form in conjunction with her new function, and let’s hope it stays that way.

Other than that, the name itself shouldn’t rub non-gamers the wrong way—after all, the concept of a sentient virtual assistant transcends Halo and appeals to something in all of us.  Artificial Intelligence is a constant human fascination, and Microsoft’s choice of the name Cortana is a nice nod to this common sci-fi trope, from Hal 9000 to C-3P0, ELIZA to Smarterchild, and, most recently, Samantha.

Grade: B+

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