This is how Cortana got started and why more countries will get Microsoft's assistant soon

Cortana is certainly the most headline worthy new feature of Windows Phone 8.1, even though the OS update has much more than a personal assistant going for it. With comparisons to Siri and Google Now, the Halo-inspired voice helper garners some needed headlines for Microsoft as they continue their entrenched battle in mobile.

Recently, Marcus Ash, who is the group program manager for Cortana on Windows Phone, was seen on camera explaining the priorities for Cortana, including entertaining the idea of putting it on other operating systems like Android or iOS. That controversial position was later clarified in a follow-up comment on our site, alleviating some concerns of Windows Phone adherents.

Today, in a second video, Ash explains the origins of Cortana's development, and how the team is "shocked by the international reaction."

In the video, recorded last week during a Q&A session at Microsoft's main campus, Ash reveals quite a few interesting bits about Cortana's beginnings:

"There's this general curiosity with – it's kind of hard to describe, but – Siri and AI systems and clever phones that can do these interesting functions that feel like the next user interface revolution. You know if you look at the big inflections where different things happen to change – like the industry leaders tend to have these big shakeups – it's usually when you have some kind of new user interface paradigm that's introduced. Mouse, keyboard, touch – all the sudden you see people's patterns change.""So we got a lot of feedback around, well, maybe this whole virtual assistant, personal assistant is the next thing. Like, this thing I could talk to that would do things on my behalf. That represents a new interface. It feels kind of interesting. So we did all that work and we surveyed the competitive landscape. We landed on this concept of Cortana..."

Regarding the notion of Cortana being labeled as a beta, Ash confirms that it is due to the massive amounts of data needed to hone Cortana's skills, to make the AI as competitive if not more than Apple's Siri and Google Now:

"We launched it as a beta primarily because of the data collection requirements. For these systems to get really good, you just have to collect a lot of data. There's just no short cutting it. We have to collect thousands of hours of recording from a variety of different people in different countries with different accents to train the speech language system. You got to see what people are searching for and have this whole intent classification system and look at when you're going to the web versus when we should've understood what you wanted. And there's a bunch of machine-learning algorithms that just need tons and tons of data."

Subsequently that beta tag should be expected to stay "through the first wave of consumer devices."

Later on in the video, Ash discusses the complicated and thorny issue of rolling Cortana out to non-US markets. According to Ash, even though Cortana is currently only for those in the US, half of its users are now global. That figure "shocked" the Cortana team because it means users had to change their region to enable the voice assistant, which demonstrates how eager people are to adopt Cortana today. Consequently, the Cortana team is now re-thinking their rollout plans:

"Probably the number one source of feedback Joe and I, both Joe Belfiore and I both get on Twitter, is when's it coming to India, when's it coming to Spain, Italy, the UK, Canada, Australia. Go Canada. My mom's from Canada. She's not happy with me because we keep putting out features and then we act like Canada's just so hard. She's just like, conceptually she's just like, I don't understand. Why is Canada so hard. We speak English. I'm like, I know mom. It's complicated.""So we get a lot of feedback on that and I think the early reception and just this kind of groundswell of, I want to use it even though it's not my native language, actually caught us by surprise and is exciting and has really pushed us to think about how quickly we should be releasing these markets."

As a result of outpouring of enthusiasm from users, Microsoft is considering a wider deployment of Cortana to other regions even before it is correctly localized, perhaps dropping the beta tag for those users and calling it "Alpha or something":

"So I think you'll see a lot of movement on that front in the next six months. I think this – the number one priority for the team is get this in the hands of as many customers as possible. We're certainly trying to expand the feature set but I think we're more interested in getting it out to consumers, seeing how they react to the current features and then getting out to more consumers. The best way for us to do that is to expand aggressively internationally."

The origins of Cortana, including the original Halo inspiration, is certainly an interesting bit of trivia. Perhaps even more attention-grabbing is the mass adoption of Cortana by non-US users. While it's not hard to enable Cortana on phones outside of the US, it's not something most casual users would engage in, or at least that's what the Cortana team thought. More specifically, it's perhaps odd that non-English speaking users will want to use, with frequency, an English-based voice assistant. With Cortana arriving in China and the UK in the "coming weeks," at least some of that frustration will be eased, though Microsoft clearly has a lot of work left ahead.

Source: Mark Guim (Twitter)

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been here covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics and ran the projectors at movie theaters, which has done absolutely nothing for his career.

  • I'm waiting...
    Her mom is right on that, Canada is an English speaking country (with French). Not India entirely, but we do understand and speak in most places (just like many other countries). I know localization is what MS is taking so long for, they don't want to release a half baked cake but Cortana in DP still works just fine for that matters.
  • I don't know, my experience, using Cortana in Canada, is that it doesn't work for me unless I speak in an American southern drawl...
  • I'm not sure about developer preview. But she must work after the original release! (I'm sure she'll)
    Although she does understand my horrible Indian English accent just perfectly so i guess she as well understands Canadian English.
  • its actually surprising how well she understands english with an indian accent  
  • Right! But she does lol
  • And here I was thinking all the time I spoke English to Cortana with my Southeast Asian accent. But not so according to #funkyGeneral. Without our knowing it, we have all been speaking to her all the time with our "American southern drawl" since she understands us perfectly LOL!
  • Actually, when I got Cortana for the first time in my phone I tried speaking to it in American accent, she understood well. Next, I tried in native indian style, she understood well, again. And then I knew the way to go... 
  • Cortana does fine understanding my friends southern Ukrainian-Asian Tex\Mex speech. Even though I just look at him and go WTF did you just say?
  • LOL! That's too much of combination for a language!
  • Weird. Works fine for me and i have some weird English /american hybrid accent...and I live in Australia. Go figure. Ha
  • Same with others! ;)
  • That's interesting. I'm Swedish and Cortana has no trouble recognizing my accent which would be a mix of American and Brittish English with a Swedish twist.
  • And as far as localizations go, Cortana already does a great job finding nearby restaurants, libraries, public transportation and so on. Only annoyance is that I need to have everything on the phone in english for that (with miles and farenheit etc).
  • Exactly.
    I hate asking temperature in Celsius each time. I hope its made default officially, for non-US countries that use Celsius.
  • In the Philippines she kept on suggesting this restaurant i never been to all the time wherever i am..
  • For the record... Miles and farenheit are NOT english measurements... they're used in stone-aged America. :D
  • I think perhaps you are taking for grantid the blessings that come along with living in a country that generates so much consumer technology. No language is really better then another. Microsoft's vision as a company is to bring ADVANCED technology/software to as many people on the face of this planet.... not to Americans, or English speakers. It just so happens that there are many different languages in the world....   It also just so happens that Microsoft actually has different headcourters in different countries. How much of a waste would it be to have those headcourters and still produce products that are only tailered to a wester culture???
  • That's pretty much the case. While Microsoft has offices everywhere in the world, the core OS team is in Washington state USA. That's where all development occurs and it makes sense that projects that are secret and closely held to the team would be kept on campus. Had Cortana been co-developed and tested in Russia, China, India and other countries, their little secret would have been revealed a long, long time ago.
  • Not trying to be a dick but... Headquarters
  • Andy Dick perhaps?
  • Strange, English isn't even my native language and Cortana understands me just fine. Anyway, I'm shocked that MS is shocked that Cortana has so many users overseas. I'm sure MS has heard of the internet. These days people all over the world communicate and share information with each other, just like on WPC. How can MS, an international software company, think that nobody outside the U.S. will know what is being released in the U.S.? It's crazy. IMHO a huge disapointment that MS still needs to "think about" something like this. They should have had standard procedures and policies in place for over ten years already. Rediculous. Oh yeah, and despite living in a german speaking country in central Europe, I work with 15 U.S. citizens who would also appreciate Cortana. It seems MS has no idea how the world works these days, or for some reason they just can't comprehend that there might also be a lot of fluent english speakers outside their borders. I appreciate the work this guy does, but in this regard he needs a boot forcfully applied to his rear.
  • Well said.
  • I think they mean it is setup to work mostly in the USA. They did not expect other countries to adopt this so early. Yet many from other countries have loaded it and are using it. I live in the states and don't think I would use a program set for use in another county, but maybe I would never had this happen yet.
  • The only real hassles with the US settings is temperature, couple spelling errors, and the date configuration (mm-dd-yyyy - the mind boggles). When the UK version comes on line I'll change to that (as I'm in Aus) but it would be nice if for the countries that aren't beta yet to get an alpha with a big warning message so we could keep the right formatting that would be nice.
  • Dont forget the contact phone numbers  xxx-xxx-xxxx I sometimes wonder if region is a great choice for defining a persons accent? Many people move geographically and never lose their accent for the rest of their life or stop using the coloquialisms they grew up with.
  • Well maybe that's because most people just buy's a phone and isn't really interested in new technologies. It's nice to have them, but won't be looking for the latest news. If I look at my own situation I haven't spoken to anyone about Cortana, because all my friends simply don't care, my colleagues don't care and my family... You get the point. I don't know anyone (here in The Netherlands) who has Siri, Google Now or Cortana. So if the date shows Microsoft that Cortana is used by a lot of people outside the US, then that's something special and something to be proud about. Now it's time to bring Cortana to Europe and the rest of the world.
  • It would be interesting to see a breakdown of those international countries.
    I'm in the UK and suspect a good percentage of Cortana users are here.
    For the most part, Cortana understands my English accent, but some words appear to be problematic, for instance "work". I have to resort to putting on an American accent by emphasizing and extending the letter 'r'!!!
  • 'Eh?
  • She likes making people look foolish in public ;) key words: Canada, American, southern (drawl).
  • Incorrect. Canada has two official languages, English and French.  The part of "It's hard" that he placates his mother with is that in order to meet Canadian regulatory compliance, the service must fully support both official languages.
  • I think you mean English and Quebecois - as and hot blooded French person would tell you "speak English to me I can't understand what your saying"
  • i think i understand their issue in bringing things to Canada, not trying to pick on the french speaking Canadians, but I suspect it has more to do with the law where all services/labels rolled out in Canada has to have both English and French capabilities, so I'm guessing it's the French part of the localization that is taking more time from them
  • Well, for one they have to add the feature that when the phone has been configured to use Canadian French, it has to refuse to acknowledge that it understands English.
  • Hahaha, I get it.  I see what you did there.
  • Hong Kong has English as an official language, I WISH they had laws governing releasing things IN ENGLISH as well as Chinese. I noticed even Microsoft nowadays just assumes "Chinese" on any website of theirs as long as I'm in this region.
  • It's not just MS, it's pretty much every tech company, and it ticks me off. For example I hate it when websites, apps and games reads my region setting and automatically switches to the local language, thinking they are doing me a service, but they are not.  I'm trilingual (English, Cantonese/Chinese, Japanese), but I prefer my UI settings in English in general.  However if I'm playing a game made in Japan, I don't want it to switch automatically to English because I don't want to read the translation (which is sometimes censored, too localized or whatever other reasons).  By the same token I don't want an English game "set" to Japanese either.  If I'm using a local map search in Hong Kong, then I also don't want to have to use English because when someone local tells me the street name they aren't going to tell me what it is in English (they probably don't even know it in English). etc  Region language setting to me is the most inconvience setting invented, especially as people become more educated and are easily bilingual or speak even more languages than that.
  • I am actually surprised that Cortana understood my South-west indian accent. 
  • South Africa is also an English-speaking country. I have no idea why we're always left off the bandwagon. Even Siri, which is available here, says, "Sorry, I'm unable to find places in South Africa." Seriously!? There's a ton of Foursquare and other location service data. When (and if) Cortana does make it here, I hope she's more useful than Siri.
  • Bring it on, India's waiting
  • 8.1 isnt out there! Be patient young user!
  • 8.1 is out over here. The 630 launched a few weeks ago and Micromax announced two devices to be launched next month.
  • Bing it on
  • +920
  • Same here
  • +Greece
  • +Ireland +Moldova
  • +820 Maybe we must fill up his tweeter too... Mpas kai doume fws... :P
  • Pretty sure Pakistan is never going to get official support. :/
  • It may
  • I had it for a while but have since reverted back to UK as my region.
  • Me too
  • I still think it should stay in the windows eco than to bring it to non windows. People can get a taste of it on windows 8 and then if they want the whole experience get more windows devices. That being said it would be fantastic if they where able to bring it world wide sooner than later.
  • Lets bring it to the Dutch people too we can speak fluently english.
  • Speak English fluently*
  • ouch... lol
  • Lol
  • or *speak fluent English. ...which I guess was what the commenter was heading for before taking the detour. :)
  • It should also be two sentences. "Let's bring it to the Dutch people, too. We can speak English, fluenty." or "...speak fluent English".  The funny thing is that most people have no idea the level of competancy required to speak a language "fluently". My ex used to tell people that she could speak Spanish fluently, after 3 years study in college and 6 months of foreign study.  Sorry, that's not enough time to collect the necessary breadth of vocabulary, let alone internalize all the nuances of different languages.  NOW...imagine having to PROGRAM all of those complexities! Maybe people can see it's not just because Microsoft "doesn't care".  This is hard stuff for humans to learn and even harder to teach to machines.
  • Amen Dalydose. People are emotional and tend to internalize their lack of understanding. Then what ultimately comes out are ignorant statements full of self pity. What you said is true. Language is difficult for us as humans. It's even more difficult to program (teach) a machine to understand. When that's understood, the situation Microsoft is in makes a lot more sense.
  • rekt
  • Bring it to the India this month,, lol,, just need to quickly finish it for local places..
  • Cortana kills my battery. I turned her off.
  • She turned me off as well
  • She turned herself off Posted via Windows Phone Central App
  • I turn her on all the time
  • Lol!
  • or the other way around "She turns me on all the time"
  • Next to Spain??????? Yeeehaaa!!
  • will there be a potcast about WP 8.1 and SP3 launch/announcement anytime soon?
  • Last 2 days until 8.1, last 22222 days until 8.1 for att users ;)
  • Thats great news.   Please Microsoft, as soon as you have thought through this give us an approximation of the roll-out plans for Cortana. I would appreciate ust know which Quarter I could expect Cortana in my country.
  • These are great news, btw I just got banned by phone arena....haha
  • Filipinos can speak English accent good too! I hope you have plans for us LOL
  • Ay ken spiik ingliş tuu. (I can speak English too) -turkey
  • Abbet.. lol idk
  • Had to read it thrice, thanks.
  • +920
    +1520 (All my current Windows phones) +McLaren (Soon to be) P.S. We Filipinos can speak American English like it's our 'native (tongue) twang' - put some British accent, with ease too! :P