It ain't easy for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) competitors to grab attention the same week the iMaker is releasing its new mobile operating system -- but news of an upcoming Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) artificial intelligence system called Cortana is doing just that.

What -- or who -- is Cortana?
For all the non-gamers our there, Cortana is an artificial intelligence character from Xbox's Halo series. But Microsoft seems to be planning to make her much more than that. ZDNet reported earlier this week that Cortana may be the base of new AI "shell" that could power the personal assistant features in Microsoft's next iteration of Windows Phone.

In July, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in a memo that the company was working on, "a family of devices powered by a service-enabled shell."

He went on to say, "Our UI will be deeply personalized, based on the advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world. Our shell will natively support all of our essential services, and will be great at responding seamlessly to what people ask for, and even anticipating what they need before they ask for it."

In sum, a voice assistant that knows what you're saying and in what context you're saying it, before you ask it, and tied into all of the important services you use on your devices. It's a pretty tall order, and it could give existing personal assistants a run for their money.

Been there, done that
The personal assistant skeptics may be saying that we already have features like this, and that they aren't that great. Siri was first released two years ago in its beta version and users generally have mixed feelings about it. Although improvements have been made, it's often considered a novelty rather than necessity. Apple says the new non-beta version of Siri coming out this week will process questions faster, check more sources, and can handle more tasks, like playing voice mail or changing iPhone settings.

But Siri lacks the anticipated information sharing that Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Now boasts. The Now app can tell you when a package is delivered, how long it will take to get to work, and when your next appointment is. Much of which can be had without even having to ask.

Up until recently, Google's predictive information was strictly reserved for Android users, but a recent update to the iOS Google Search app added the same features for iPhone users as well. While iOSers actually have to open the app to get the info -- as opposed to Android where the information just shows up -- it's more than Apple currently offers its own users. Google pulls information from Gmail, Google News, Navigation, Maps, and its other services to give users the real-time data. With reliable voice searching and predictive data, Google Now is one of the most advanced mobile personal assistants.

Though Microsoft may be excited about creating a new system shell that can anticipate a user's requests, talking about what you want a mobile artificial intelligence system to do and actually getting it work are two different things. The company is set to release the next version of its smartphone platform around the holidays, called Windows Phone Blue, so it's possible we could see Cortana sooner rather than later.

Microsoft is in desperate need of something that can lure iPhone and Android users away from their devices to Windows Phones. Holding onto just 3.9% of global smartphone shipment market share isn't making investors happy. We really need to see new features from Windows Phone that prove Microsoft can create devices that users really want. Cortana could be a great first step in the right direction.

Fool contributor Chris Neiger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Google. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.