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Why Microsoft Named Its Siri Rival ‘Cortana’ After a ‘Halo’ Character

Image: Joe Belfiore

Microsoft corporate vice president Joe Belfiore, of the Operating Systems Group, demonstrates the new Cortana personal assistant during the keynote address of the Build Conference on April 2, in San Francisco. Microsoft kicked off its annual conference for software developers, with new updates to the Windows 8 operating system and upcoming features for Windows Phone and Xbox. Eric Risberg / AP

Microsoft unveiled a long list of new products at its Build conference on Wednesday, but the company spent the most time on Cortana: a Siri-like digital assistant.
Windows Phone chief Greg Sullivan spoke with NBC News about why the company named Cortana after a video game character -- and how "she" represents the Microsoft vision under the company's new CEO Satya Nadella.

Nadella has made clear from day one that mobile is a big priority for the company. How do the Build announcements fit into that?

Cortana in particular is emblematic of this idea about how individual and how smart the smartphone can be. She'll get to know me, and she won't give me the same answer that she'd give you. The name alone was really exciting -- that we're calling it Cortana [after an artificial-intelligence character in the video game Halo]. It was originally a code name for the project.

People were surprised that the rumored code name turned out to be the final product.

Yup. [Windows Phone lead program manager] Robert Howard had the idea that the Cortana character was a great description of the helpful, intelligent, intuitive character that you get to know and trust over time.
It was a code name to rally the team around what they were building -- and then it leaked. When it did, people just clamored for us to keep the name. They created petitions and voted on polls. It was that passion of the community that helped us do something a little, maybe, surprising for Microsoft.

What will the Windows Phone team do differently under Nadella? Windows Phone overtook BlackBerry last year in terms of global phone market share -- but at 3.3 percent, it's still a distant third to Android (78 percent) and iOS (15 percent), according to IDC.

Satya alluded to it in his discussion this week: It's the challenger mindset. when you're in that mind frame, you can take risks and experiment.
But it also makes the principles you focus on even more important. For us, that principle is that really feels like my phone. We don't think [personal tech] should be one-size fits all, and we think we're really on to something.
There's a palpable sense of renewed excitement and energy in the halls in Redmond [our headquarters]. That has a lot to do with Satya. It's been an evolution.