By Adrian Covert @CNNTechApril 28, 2014: 6:24 AM ET
Meet Microsoft Cortana, Siri for Windows
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)
Now that our gadgets are plenty fast and powerful, and most software is easy enough for babies to use, everyone is searching for the Next Big Thing in tech.
Based on the investments Big Tech companies are making, the next tech wave will likely be powered by contextual and predictive technologies.
In plain terms, contextual and predictive technologies are designed to get our devices to do exactly what we want without us having to ask over and over again.
Microsoft's(MSFT) new Cortana feature for Windows Phone can dive into a handful of apps and anticipate when and where you'll need certain bits of critical information. For example, Cortana can offer up your flight info and boarding pass as you travel to the airport. It can then prominently present that information to you without you doing anything. In some cases, it could even automatically relay information to another app.
What's particularly interesting about Cortana is how much attention Microsoft has given it. Cortana was the star of the show at this year's Microsoft Build developers conference, overshadowing substantial Windows and Windows Phone updates.
Google(GOOGL) offers a similar service called "Google Now" for Android devices. Earlier this year, Yahoo! (YHOO)paid a cool $80 million for Aviate, an Android app that changes the look of users' homescreens based on where they are, what time of day it is, and what they're doing. Nest's thermostats learn your habits and the most efficient way to manage the temperature in your house.
The lack of contextual services is also what makes Apple's(AAPL) Siri feature more of a gimmick than a digital assistant. Apple has spent years polishing its voice recognition technology, which works pretty well. But aside from things like dictating text messages, setting alarms, and checking the weather, there's not much to it that is actually useful.
Why all this attention to context and predictions? As new categories of technology, including wearable devices, grow more popular, services such as Cortana and Google Now will only rise in importance.
Contextual and predictive technologies, if done right, will streamline and improve the process of interacting with a phone, watch, headset, television and cars. Smarter software inside a car could help keep our focus on the road. Embedded within a video streaming service, it could determine each person's likes and dislikes in a room and recommend something everyone will want to watch. And it could mean less interaction with devices that have limited physical space, particularly watches or Google Glass-like wearable displays.
That's why Google prominently mentioned Google Now features when introducing its forthcoming Android Wear platform for smartwatches. With Google Now, Android-powered watches have the potential to determine where you are, and to a certain extent, what you're doing. They could also predict what you're most likely to go tapping and swiping for and then display that on the watch's screen.
How well this will work in real life remains to be seen. But without the predictive powers of Google Now, any Android watch would have struggled to be more than a clone of Samsung's woeful Gear smartwatches that force you to swipe and swipe and swipe to accomplish anything.
As cool as this not-so-distant future sounds, the thought of technology constantly tracking you and collecting data can seem a bit dystopic. The rise of these services will require a certain level of caution and responsibility from their creators.
Marcus Ash, the program manager for Microsoft's Cortana project, stressed how important it was to approach the issues of data collection and privacy with extreme sensitivity.
Cortana, for example, has a built-in dashboard where users can see exactly what the software is tracking and the the types of data it is saving. Ash says that outside apps have no access to any personal data collected, and the user has complete control over changing or removing any settings or collected data.
"When it comes to new technologies like this, you only get one chance to win people over," said Ash. "And if you mess that up, it's a hard thing to recover from."
So far, these services have avoided any of the major pitfalls that could detract from mass adoption of these technologies. And that's a good thing, because without them, technology would be much more boring right now.