Microsoft's new Outings app aims to help travelers find their next destinations

Microsoft has launched Outings, a new travel app for iOS and Android. Designed by the Microsoft Garage Project, the app curates travel-specific content and images to help users find potential travel destinations.

“Whether you’re looking for a fun hike near town or planning your next vacation destination, often the hardest part of travel is just figuring out where to go,” writes Lainie Huston on the Microsoft Garage blog. “Outings makes it easier by presenting inspiration for your next adventure, curating high quality travel blogs and beautiful images to show the information — and sneak peek — you need to pick where to go.”

According to Microsoft, the app includes a “Discover” feed listing US locations, and a “Nearby” feed that surfaces content related to local sites. Users can keep track of places they’ve traveled, as well as save and share places with contacts.

“We look forward to users’ feedback from our launch, and we plan to actively respond to them and add several new features in the coming months,” says Microsoft Garage program manager Vimal Kocherla.

Microsoft said it is also open to partnering with travel and local content providers that want to promote their content within the app.

Survey: 60 percent of voice users want more answers and fewer search results

Alexander Supertramp / Shutterstock.com

Voice search and use of voice commands on mobile devices is on the rise. However, there’s still some embarrassment or reluctance to use it, according to a new survey of more than 900 US smartphone owners from Stone Temple Consulting.

The survey found that people were more likely to use voice when they were alone at home or work. They were much less likely to talk to their devices in public.

Men, younger (and older) users and higher income groups were somewhat more inclined to use voice; however, the differences by category were generally not significant. The exceptions were that men and higher income earners appeared somewhat less inhibited about using voice in public situations.

Ironically, those same high income earners “are more likely to get annoyed by people using voice commands with their phone in public,” although they themselves are more likely to do it as well.

Making a call, searching, texting and map lookups were top use cases. Driving, “hands full” and “hands dirty” were the top contexts for voice, with roughly 60 percent citing these as dominant scenarios. However, the vast majority (80 percent) still preferred to text by hand (this may go to accuracy).

The top three rationales behind voice usage were:

    It’s fast.The answer is read back to me.I don’t have to type.

About 40 percent of both men and women said that voice made using their smartphones easier. Men were more likely than women to strongly agree. This answer and other data in the survey reflect a mostly positive experience with voice.

Perhaps the most interesting data in the survey findings pointed to the transformation of the search experience with virtual assistants and voice on smartphones. Users wanted more direct answers and fewer conventional search results with their corresponding need to go to third-party websites.

Respondents said they also wanted “more integration with other applications.” That’s a strange response, given that on both the iPhone and Android devices, speech is integrated with third-party apps.

We should see these responses as further indicators of satisfaction with virtual assistants and voice. I wish there were additional data unpacking this response. It’s the one with the most dramatic implications for the search user experience, for marketers and for Google.

Apple building Amazon Echo competitor, will open Siri to third-party apps — [Report]

On the heels of Amazon’s success with Echo and Google’s introduction of Home, Apple is preparing a stand-alone virtual assistant device, powered by Siri, according to a report in The Information. The report says that Apple will also open up Siri to third-party apps.

This latter point is the more significant of the two revelations. According to the article:

Opening up its Siri voice assistant to outside app developers is the more immediate step. Apple is preparing to release a software developer kit, or SDK, for app developers who want their apps to be accessible through Siri, according to a person with direct knowledge of the effort.

As I’ve indicated in the past, this was the original vision for Siri: an intelligent front end for third-party services, transactions and content. However, after Apple bought Siri, it basically abandoned that ambition (aside from a handful of partner services). Now, competition is forcing the company to return to that vision.

The article cites “a person with direct knowledge” of the proposition that “Apple has been working on the device since long before the $180 Echo launched in mid-2015.” Regardless, Apple is compelled to create an Echo-like assistant for multiple reasons. One of them is the emerging smart home. These stand-alone assistants become hubs and controllers for other devices — part of a smart-home ecosystem. (Microsoft will likely be next with a Cortana-based home device.)

Siri co-founder Dag Kittlaus, now CEO of Viv, saw Siri explicitly as the successor to traditional search. One of his objectives was to eliminate the awkwardness of the mobile SERP. Yet with its announcement of Google Home last week, Mountain View ironically comes the closest to realizing Kittlaus’ vision so far. I say that because of the integration of third-party services from Uber, Pandora, OpenTable, Spotify, WhatsApp and Ticketmaster.

Google’s discussion of the “Google assistant” last week was also very significant because it ushers in a new era of “conversational search”:

The assistant is conversational — an ongoing two-way dialogue between you and Google that understands your world and helps you get things done. It makes it easy to buy movie tickets while on the go, to find that perfect restaurant for your family to grab a quick bite before the movie starts, and then help you navigate to the theater.

In the event it’s not obvious, search in the future is more fragmented or “ambient.” It’s less about individual devices (the PC, the smartphone) and more about continuous access to information and capabilities across devices (PC, smartphone, car, wearable, smart hub).

Search is also less about “the SERP” and more about fulfilling immediate and specific needs or objectives — including transactional requests (e.g., book a rental car). This is not to say that the SERP disappears entirely or that SEO goes away — I’m probably unlikely to use Google Home or Echo to shop for (as opposed to buy) an oven — but in the assistant context, “search results” are radically altered. And SEO becomes something quite different from what it is today.

Reportedly, the Siri SDK will be announced next month at Apple’s developer conference, WWDC.

Microsoft Translator App Comes To iOS & Android With Wearable Support

Microsoft has released the Microsoft Translate app for iOS and Android, which brings them in tight competition with Google’s popular Google Translate software.

The big noticeable difference is that Microsoft enabled the features for both platform’s wearable products, Apple Watch and Android Wear.

I tested the iOS Google Translate app on my iPhone and Apple Watch, and it works pretty well.

The iOS app for the iPhone offers a way to both speak and type your words, while the Apple Watch only offers the speak-to-translate option. Not all languages will talk back to you with the translation. Speaking in English and asking to translate to Spanish will read back the Spanish translation; asking it to speak the Hebrew translation does not work.

In addition, you cannot speak to translate in all languages, such as Hebrew, but you can in many.

The app supports the following languages: Arabic, Bosnian (Latin), Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese(S), Chinese(T), Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Hmong Daw, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malay, Maltese, Norwegian, Quer’etaro Otomi, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian (Cyrillic), Serbian (Latin), Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese and Welsh, and Yucatec Maya.

But the speak-to-translate option only supports about 30 of these 50 languages listed.

Google Translate is similar, in that it does not currently offer the speak-to-translate function in all of the supported text-to-translate options.

Here are some iOS screen shots of the app on the phone and watch:

For more details, check out the CNET coverage.

Cortana For Android Available For Download Ahead Of Official Launch

A few days ago, Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana, became available for download. This is not the official launch, and it’s not clear the software is ready for all Android devices. It certainly didn’t function properly on my Nexus tablet.

Several people have already written about it, and it appears to be fully functioning for some. I downloaded it onto my Nexus 7 and was able to execute certain functions and commands. However, I had difficulty with others. I had planned to do a Cortana vs. Google (Now) comparison post but will have to defer that until later.

I was able to do some, but not all types of searches. I successfully set calendar appointments and reminders and got driving directions. But I had surprising difficulty sending email, conducting local searches, or getting answers to simple questions such as “How much is the Dollar worth vs. the Euro?”

Many of my queries yielded a blank screen (see above right). Presumably, it’s the fact that I was using a tablet and not an Android handset that caused this. But it shows the software isn’t yet ready for prime time.

There’s a lot that’s impressive going on under the hood with Cortana. But as with Yahoo’s launcher-assistant, Aviate Cortana will have to clearly differentiate on Android (and iOS) or be relegated to also-ran status. That may be somewhat easier for Cortana on iOS than Android, given Siri’s weaker position and functionality.

Google-Android users, by default, are going to be more likely to call upon Google voice search and Google Now than they will be to use Cortana. That’s unless Cortana can develop some uniquely useful or attention-getting features that are clearly different from or better than Google’s similar capabilities.

Right now, I didn’t see that differentiation in my quick tests. By contrast, I now exclusively use the Outlook iOS client on my iPhone for email. My primary email address is a Gmail address, but I prefer Outlook’s functionality to the native iOS email app or the Gmail app.

To me, that suggests that Microsoft has the capacity to win over iOS and Android users for Cortana, which is also a front door to Bing queries. However, it looks like it’s going to be quite challenging to do so.

Bing iPhone App Gets A Refresh With New Privacy Controls, Image Search Results & More Emojis

Bing announced new updates to its iPhone App today, adding everything from a new privacy search mode feature, and improved image search results to an expanded set of emojis that can be used to perform searches.

After releasing new privacy controls earlier this year, Bing’s iPhone app now includes a “Privacy Search” mode that can be turned on via a user’s “Recent Tiles” window.

The app also has refreshed its image search results to make them “a lot smarter” and added video snippet previews that can be viewed inline so that users can view a video while scrolling through search results.

Other updates include the ability to launch apps directly from the search results page, and an expanded set of emojis that can be used to perform searches.

Cortana Expands The Boundaries Of Search, But Will It Eventually Eat It Too?

Google has been talking for years about “building the Star Trek computer,” a conversational machine that understands and naturally communicates answers to spoken questions. The company has been making incremental progress toward that objective. But with the launch of Cortana on the PC, Microsoft may have leaped ahead of its rival.

Microsoft’s new holographic goggles, HoloLens, and digital assistant Cortana were the undisputed stars of last week’s Windows 10 event. And as Microsoft prepares to roll the new PC operating system it’s interesting to consider the future of web search in a world of artificial intelligence and digital assistants.

(Google’s Voice Search is available on the PC but offers limited functionality. Siri is not yet on Apple’s PC operating system but will likely come to it later this year or early next year.)

As it was explained to me, Bing provides the “intelligence engine” or “intelligence fabric” at the center of Cortana. In turn Cortana is a stack of technology and capabilities, including speech recognition, natural language understanding and an index of information (Bing) among others.

Cortana is, in a sense, a new entry point for Bing as well. However Cortana, Google Now and Siri reflect the emergence of a broader usage paradigm, which transcends traditional search. That was first suggested by the appearance of Siri before Apple acquired the technology. Google Now has pushed that further with “predictive search.”

Despite being late to the party, Microsoft has denied that Cortana is a “me too” product or was a direct response to Siri or Google Now. The technology behind Cortana has been evolving within Microsoft for years, chiefly in the area of speech recognition and natural language understanding.

Google has some of the same deep technology assets as Microsoft. However Apple does not; Siri is relatively thin and relies on third parties for speech recognition. Apple risks falling behind (without investments or acquisitions) as the digital assistant arms race gains momentum.

Following last week’s Windows 10 announcement I had the opportunity to speak with Microsoft search engineers Ryan Gavin and Mike Calcagno. During the conversation I speculated about the future of the Bing brand and its user experience given the rise of Cortana.

“As Cortana gets better doesn’t it make Bing less and less necessary? I suggested. They didn’t buy into the premise and used an analogy to suggest how Bing and Cortana will coexist. It’s not “or;” it’s an “and” paradigm, they asserted.

“We’re opening up a new class of experiences,” said Calcagno, who likened the Bing-Cortana relationship to the way that the mobile web and apps coexist today. “We’re transforming not only what you can search but how you search.”

With its ambient listening and “Hey Cortana” wake word, Microsoft sees Cortana’s always on capability liberating search from a traditional query box. “We’re giving people access to the power of search without disrupting what people are doing.” The company also sees Cortana as a differentiator for its software and hardware across platforms.

Nonetheless, Calcagno and Gavin also don’t see a near-term Cortana takeover of search. Bing is expanding and being more deeply integrated across Windows and in other Microsoft products, such as Word.

With Cortana, however, “We’re making a long-term bet on richer interactivity and more natural interactions,” said Gavin. “We’re creating new user paradigms and bringing search into the context of what you’re already doing.”

The immediate question facing search, according to Gavin and Calcagno is, “How do you take it out of 1995 and bring more intelligence into it?” The obvious answer, in their minds, is Cortana.

Cortana Expands To Other Markets, Becomes "Xiao Na" In China

There’s increasing evidence that Microsoft’s personal assistant Cortana is being positioned as a key differentiator vs. Android and iPhones. A new TV commercial (below) purports to compare Cortana to Siri, with a mock Siri voice saying “I can’t do that” a number of times.

This morning Microsoft announced new geographies and new features for Cortana as part of Windows Phone 8.1. It also announced a range of improvements and upgrades for the Windows Phone OS in general.

The company is expanding Cortana’s availability to China and the UK (beta), as well as Canada, India and Australia (alpha). In China Cortana goes by the name “Xiao Na.” Indeed, in each market Microsoft is emphasizing Cortana’s “local relevance.” 

US Cortana feature additions and new capabilities include:

New natural language scenariosSnooze times for reminders“Neat additions to her personality (try asking ‘do an impersonation’ and see what happens)”“Ability to invoke Cortana hands-free in car for phones connected to car Bluetooth kits that are integrated with your contacts list. If your car kit is integrated with your contacts, you can now treat Cortana as a contact to invoke her, simply saying ‘Call Cortana’ and then talking to her as you normally would.”

Notwithstanding positive reviews for Windows Phones and good sales in Europe (mainly due to the Nokia brand), Microsoft has had difficulty with its Windows Phone messaging and with differentiation. Cortana my provide a powerful new angle for the company and a way to overcome some of the perceived deficiencies of the OS — like fewer apps.

New Video Shows Microsoft "Assistant" Cortana In Action

Microsoft will be introducing its Siri and Google Now/Voice competitor Cortana with Windows 8.1 in April. The new “intelligent assistant” will eventually be available cross-platform, although launching on Lumia Phones.

The name Cortana comes from a character in the game Halo. It was originally thought that Cortana would look like her character in the game (see image right). However it now appears “she” won’t have a face or a body.

Cortana is intended to help users discover and search for information as well as providing Google Now like personalization and “predictive search” capabilities. The problem with the latter is that Microsoft doesn’t have as much data as Google does to power anticipatory search and recommendations.

For that reason, upon set up, Cortana takes users through a battery of personalization questions. The blog UnleashThePhones posted a video (below) of Cortana in action. Among the questions Cortana asks users are the following:

What are a couple of the most enjoyable parts of your everyday evenings?When you think about food, what’s most important to you these days?What are two of your main motivations for going out to an event/activity?

Microsoft is also licensing Foursquare location data to help further enrich the Cortana experience.

Reportedly behind Cortana will be sophisticated machine learning and Microsoft’s/Bing’s “Satori” technology. Cortana will supposedly enable “deep personalization” of device experiences from mobile to the PC to Xbox.

However to be more than simply a “Siri impersonator” or “me too” product, Cortana will need to obviously outperform Siri and Google Now. That remains to be seen.

It appears that Cortana will in a way compete with Bing. It’s not clear however whether Cortana is intended to become the dominant UI for “search” on Microsoft devices or whether it will operate more like a Google Now product that includes Bing search but offers different use cases.

Bing Ads Expands Mobile Sitelinks Coverage In US, Will Roll Out To EU Markets

Bing Ads announced today that it will complete the roll out of sitelink extensions on mobile devices in the US in coming weeks.

In a post on the Bing Ads blog, Microsoft’s Eliot Li said they currently have enabled over 60 percent of the mobile traffic on the Yahoo Bing Network (YBN) to run sitelinks in the US.

Sitelinks for Mobile will launch in several EU markets, including the UK, France, and Germany, says Li.

Additionally, Li says Bing Ads has doubled the number of mobile clicks by growing its network over the past year.