Why Did Microsoft Make China's Cortana Cuter Than Everyone Else's?

Short answer: Because Microsoft knows what it's doing and wants to win China back.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Microsoft announced the features in its Windows Phone 8.1 update today, including, as expected, folders for organizing apps, an Xbox Music app, and new capabilities for text messaging. 

But here's an unexpected addition: The company has designed a wildly different Cortana—the personal assistant for the phone, a.k.a. Microsoft's Siri—for China, while sticking to the same ole halo look for all other countries' versions.

Here's the Chinese Cortana:


And here's the one everyone else—the U.K., Canada, India, Australia, the U.S., etc.—will see on their Windows phones:


The Chinese one ditches halo and adds a face—or as much of a face as possible, making it the first personal assistant on a phone to have, er, eye sockets. It's cute, and it's made cuter by its nickname: "Xiao Na." ("Xiao" means "little" in Mandarin Chinese, and is often used for children's nicknames.) But why the special treatment for China? Is the rest of the world not face-worthy? Is the Chinese market more emotional? Take it away, Microsoft:

"The huge Chinese market has a bunch of different expectations and needs than the US or other countries," the company explained in its announcement. "She has an alternative form which has a different visual appearance, animations, and sounds."

It's an unsurprisingly vague statement, but it's clear Microsoft has different expectations for the Chinese market (more on that later), and with that comes an understanding of China's place in tech—and its affinity for arguably cuter icons.

Take China's notorious firewall and subsequent copycat sites on the Internet, for example. Because users in China can't access sites like Facebook and Twitter, home-bred ones sprouted instead. And similar to China's special Cortana, these sites designed logos that had an arguable "cuter" look, with face-like features and icons supplementing the website name.

Take a look at Weibo's logo, on the left, which mirrors an eye. Twitter, on the other hand, uses just a silhouette of its bird:

Left: Weibo; Right: Twitter

As for China's Facebook equivalent, renren (which translates to "person person"), an icon is added to the left of its name.

renren; Facebook

And finally, YouTube copycat Tudou uses an orange face as its logo.

Tudou; YouTube

There are more (think QQ's penguin icon vs. AIM or MSN Messenger's faceless humans, for example), but these comparisons show China's style of approaching its users, of which there are roughly 618 million.

And so, it seems, Microsoft is wisely tapping into this formula.

It's a clever strategy (who doesn't like a special, personalized design, even if it's for an entire country?), but China's a tough market. Even though China has been a huge growth market for U.S. tech companies (it's home to Apple factories, after all), the country's been a nightmare for American Internet firms and tech brands, thanks to an underlying distrust of U.S. companies monopolizing the market.

In fact, in the past several years, China has been slowly pulling away from American companies. The country first kicked Google off the mainland in 2010 after the search engine giant stopped censoring results, relentlessly raised intellectual property lawsuits against major companies, and launched campaigns to spread Chinese brands like Weibo into American cyberspace.

"The U.S. tech companies are much more concerned than they were two or three years ago," Robert Atkinson, president of tech policy think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told the New York Times. "Most of them were looking with growing interest at the China market. Now they're much more concerned that the rug is being pulled out from under them."

And so, China's tech landscape is less like the rolling green hills on a Windows desktop background and more a precarious minefield, especially for Microsoft. About 100 Chinese investigators raided Microsoft offices in four Chinese cities just this week, in an attempt to figure out whether the company broke China's stern antimonopoly laws. And that's not all: China's Central Government Procurement Center forbade the use of Windows 8 in state agencies, reported Xinhua, China's official state-run news agency.

That hasn't stopped Microsoft from upping its game, and its unique Cortana design is an indication the tech giant understands how to navigate that minefield—even as that minefield gets stronger every day. China President Xi Jinping announced in June the government will be tightening domestic control of new technologies, saying, "Only if core technologies are in our own hands can we truly hold the initiative in competition and development."

But if Microsoft's special Chinese Cortana does her job, that initiative may take longer than Xi thought.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.