Why Microsoft needs to unify the many faces of Cortana

Microsoft's personal assistant Cortana is getting a new home this week on Android. The Microsoft Launcher for Android (beta) now has Cortana built in, and it got a design revamp. Of course, being Microsoft and Cortana, the feature is region-restricted to just a handful of countries including the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and China.

One of the more exciting aspects of the Cortana integration – which is very well done – is the updated UI, which is now cleaner. This design contrasts with the existing Cortana app for Android and iOS, which is more reliant on the old "card" interface. Both contrast even more with the current version for Windows 10.

While platform variation is to be expected – even encouraged – Microsoft needs to unify its Cortana user experience across devices better if it expects broader user adoption.

Embracing platform diversity ... but not too much

Microsoft's new Cortana for its Android launcher (right) is much nicer looking than the dedicated Cortana app (left).

Microsoft's new Cortana for its Android launcher (right) is much nicer looking than the dedicated Cortana app (left).

Microsoft has waxed and waned in the past between a single, unified UI design for its apps and services to more tailored ones that better fit into specific platforms. This shift in design philosophy was expressed profoundly in Skype, which for many years looked like the PC desktop version, then shifted countless times with various changes in design.

To be fair, the approach of tailoring something like Cortana for Android is welcome. While Microsoft idealists believe the company should turn Android into a pseudo-Windows Phone with Live tiles, cooler heads have prevailed. Instead, Microsoft's apps for Android embrace Google's design choices to blend in better.

The problem right now, however, is the different looks of Cortana within Android. The Cortana app and Cortana voice recognition screen look very different from the new Microsoft Launcher version (the new one seems way better).

Cortana on Android (left) and iOS (right). They look similar, but neither are very attractive.

Cortana on Android (left) and iOS (right). They look similar, but neither are very attractive.

Perhaps this is part of a grand scheme where Microsoft will align its Cortana, Bing, and Launcher apps with the same Cortana experience – and maybe that will even look like Windows 10 – but knowing the company's past gives me pause.

Other issues like region restrictions, or the inability to wire deeper into Android. like "Hey, Cortana." is more reflective of the difficulties in making an assistant for a competing platform. Amazon's Alexa will face similar problems on Windows 10 whenever that app rolls out on select PCs.

Cortana's look needs to wow users

The look of Cortana on Windows 10 is very different than iOS or Android.

The look of Cortana on Windows 10 is very different than iOS or Android.

Finally, while Cortana is growing in functionality, the version for Windows 10 needs a design makeover. Microsoft is expected to shift Cortana out of search into the Action Center and create a more chat-driven user experience, giving the company a significant opportunity to just that.

What should Cortana look like? Opinions vary, but I'd argue the digital assistant had its heyday in design back when it debuted on Windows Phone in 2014.

Cortana is far from dead as Microsoft plans to make an 'Intelligent OS'

Microsoft later shifted its design to a more dynamic card system with Windows 10 for PC. That move also let Cortana's cloud results "live" on other non-native devices by dynamically scaling to all resolutions. The result, however, is quite dull and unattractive with the Android and iOS versions, which at least look similar, appearing very outdated and frankly ugly.

All of this is a bit ironic, as Microsoft last year made a big push about its Fluent Design System, which is now steadily creeping into Windows 10. Even the Microsoft Launcher for Android has acrylic (blur) elements, marking the first instance of the company's new design language headed to a competing platform.

But what about Cortana?

Surely a futuristic, A.I. driven personal assistant could at least look the part. For all the gruff Apple's Siri gets it is at least pleasant to look at.

Designing an assistant that is both easy to navigate but also flexible enough to work on rival OSes is not easy. But this is the lot Microsoft is embracing. Let's hope it can refocus, realign, and reimagine Cortana for 2018 and beyond. Functionality and ambition will always outpace what digital assistants can do, but at the very least the company can wow us with some eye candy in the meantime.

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.

  • Why isn't Cortana available in many regions anyways?
  • Because Bing sucks anywhere outside US
  • Exactly.
  • And why is that? Why don't they improve Bing outside of the US?
  • Not necessarily, most of the features like skills are only available in the US and have nothing to do with Bing.
  • Nonsense. Any time Cortana is asked a non-basic question, she has to "search the web for you," and that is tied directly into Bing. Cortana's ability to talk back and act like a real AI is lacking. It's quicker to simply search the web on your own then to ask Cortana, and have her tell you to do a web search. Compare this to Google's assistant, which gives a voice answer to practically every question asked, and it's obvious why nobody uses Cortana.
  • And yet alexa is available everywhere. Its search engine is bing if I remember correctly. That didn't stop them.
  • +1 #galapagossyndrome
  • Why is Cortana dead?  https://www.technobuffalo.com/2018/01/25/cortana-is-dead/  ONE REASON... because the self proclaimed genius Nadella killed off mobile.  Without a mobile presence there cannot be an A.I. presence.  If Nadella can't see that then he should resign.  
  • hnnn...
    StoryRemix uses AI right?
    AI API that's available for devs... is also AI technology / research right?
    And I thought MS's going implement some sorta AI into Win10's system and Office, it might not be called Cortana... but it's still MS AI technology right?
    And ARM is coming this year. WinPhone was a mistake, impacted no market share and is a burden for devs even if it succeeded.
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  • I think mature function should be the point of effort. Design is just cosmetic. To me if the function doesn't mature with meaningful features... It might as well be dead. They can always easily clean up the look later.
  • It's not either/or, they can and should do both.
  • Well... We are talking Microsoft here. When have they ever done what they should do?
  • I think it's much easier to point out their flaws than it is to give them praise where they do get things right.
  • They have gotten things right in a while. Usually instead of getting it right then refine, they reboot. This is why Contana on WP8.1 is still better than W10 Cortana.
  • Daniel... There's always been a lot of articles, rather editorials, suggesting what MS needs to do.
    My question is, why does it seem like everyone knows what MS needs to do, but MS?
    Maybe WC should run an editorial about why MS needs (or doesn't need) advice, and help, making logical decisions for running their own company. IMO, that's really the root argument here.
  • The next in-depth article needs to be: how does MS ever think it's going to compete with Google and Apple globally if they limit so many of their critical initiatives to a handful of regions? Even that international laggard Amazon is finally starting to catch up
  • Well...considering Microsoft is making billions and their value is growing...I think they're doing pretty well without the need for advice from fan-sites. Also, there's a difference between what fans would like to see Microsoft do and what makes financial sense for Microsoft to do.
  • Exactly. Microsoft’s current focus is very far away from consumer stuff like this, on Azure, Office365 and Dynamics where they are doing super well, aggressively cornering the enterprise market and making billions in profit. This is why their Stock has increased, it has very little to do with the consumer side of things, where they are generally treading water. Considering MS’s previous research and capability for AI, Cortana seems ridiculously bad by comparison, and even the name seems designed to lock out non-geeks from ever wanting to actually use it. Amazon is the very clear winner of the assistant wars for the home. Cortana will rule the windows space until MS wield the axe. It probably won’t be long if Windows Central has already written an article about why they aren’t going to kill it. 
  • Perhaps the best way to encourage people to adopt a new thing is to take the old thing away. For example, replace the Calendar or Weather apps with a Cortana app. I don't think many folks would take the trouble to optionally learn and train a new tool when the old tools are still present and muscle memory takes you straight to them. Microsoft needs to be bold here.
  • Replacing the Calendar or Weather apps with Cortana, nor matter how bold it may be, is absolutely not what they should do, in my opinion. You should be able to use one or both of those apps if you don't want to or cannot use Cortana. Integrating Cortana in those apps (similar to Edge) may be a better idea instead.
  • Do anyone really use the calender and weather apps? The majority of people i know uses Google calender and even if they have windows 10 they never bnother with the one built into it and again most people even use the weather app built into their phone oir like me get another app.  If I look to see what the weather is like on my computer I do so in the browser, I have never used the weather app, in fact  i got rid of it.  
  • So anecdotal evidence? I use the built in apps, partially because it's faster than going to a website.
  • Let's try taking the Start menu away again then. See how that one goes.
  • Cortana should not be so crippled on Xbox, then again with Kinect or some kind of voice input maybe it doesn't matter.
  • ...along the same lines: Why Windows Central needs to fix its website in Edge: dunno... maybe cause it's Windows Central? and Edge? ya know, the default browser in... Windows? Since the latest changes, you cannot open the Comments section in Edge. I had to open this in Chrome just to post this. Way to promote Edge.
  • works fine here on Edge w/ adguard too.
  • Good point, I checked and it was AdBlock. I didn't think of that cause it used to work. Apologies, Windows Central.
  • I personally use Ghostery. It's a bit more configurable and works with more sites/not overkill.
  • Personally, they need to get Cortana out into more markets then currently available. The design shift can work alongside that as well as functionality. This is yet another instance of haphazard design and pathway, I'm not going to say too much... otherwise I'll end up typing up another essay why this is occuring.
  • "they need to get Cortana out into more markets then currently available."
    Of course, but we all know that already. I wanted to talk about something different.
  • Lol I know, for me it's just that design is not to far off from a global roll out as they all depend on each other in one shape or form. As they can do a marketing campaign to unify the design, obtain mind share and new users in the process. Plus within the unification of design they can increase functionality and ease of use. However that's just sadly wishful thinking, there are hardly any ads in the UK. Anyway, as this is about design and UI. Which one do you prefer personally?
  • Recent quote from Bezos: "Our 2017 projections for Alexa were very optimistic, and we far exceeded them," Bezos said in a statement. He added that investors should "expect us to double down" on the digital assistant. "We've reached an important point where other companies and developers are accelerating adoption of Alexa." Hmmmm... Can we get something like this from Satya?
  • No. We can't.
  • Oh yes, we can. Give him Here Map/ Bing Map so hopefully he get his heading right.
  • Yes. Satya ll say that he doesn't see the need for a 4th ai assistant 
  • I just read a surprising fact. Amazon's VP of devices says that they have 5000 people working just on Alexa. About 10 years ago, MS had something like 2500 people working on W7.
  • So Cortana. Availability, features and design are a clusterfuck across all platforms. Got it. What's new?
  • As soon as articles scream something isn't dead,.... IT'S DEAD. There is no future for Cortana because it has no own mobile platform.
  • So is Alexa dead and without future, too, not having its own mobile platform?
  • Amazon was smart and innovated with the Echo. The Echo doesn't require a mobile platform. Google saw this, saw how well it worked and quickly put their Assistant on similar hardware. These products sold very well over the holidays. Microsoft isn't driven to be in the consumer market and maybe they don't have to be. Microsoft seems to be doing fine with "behind the scenes" products like Azure and desktop Windows will be hard to replace, especially the enterprise market.
  • I do not think they sold a lot here in Europe......
  • Amazon gives more of a damn than Microsoft. So ...
  • You say this on the day Microsoft announces Cortana Research Institute, puts Cortana into Launcher and announces plans for To-Do integration. And beyond that, I reported two weeks ago that Microsoft is building Cortana throughout WCOS. I feel your timing on this is just...bad.
    "There is no future for Cortana because it has no own mobile platform."
    (1) hey, look, neither does Amazon. How'd that Amazon phone work out? (2) There is WAAAY more to the future of AI than just being on a smartphone. If you disagree you need to really step out of the "phone is god" bubble, because that is not all of computing. Far from it. (3) Microsoft is not out of mobile yet.
  • The difference is that Amazon innovated with an Echo device.  Microsoft is simply copying with a me-too Invoke device they probably begged Harmon Kardon to stick its name to.  On the other hand, Google is able to compete because of their mobile presence.  Microsoft will abandon Cortana soon enough.  Nadella is a quitter.  He'll show us in due time that he has no backbone even for his own beloved A.I.  Pretty soon M$ will be reduced to Azure and Office 365.  
  • I agree that while it would be much better to have native mobile platform, this is not a showstopper. However, lack of devices for the assistant to run on is a problem. Today, all of the virtual assistants are limited in what they can do and understand. However, given that the actual software running in an Echo, the Invoke, Google Home, is trivial and all of the real speech recognition, AI etc. are running in the cloud, real advances can come without forcing users to upgrade to new devices.  So, getting hardware now into people's homes, apps on their phones, cars, refrigerators etc. is where this battle will be won or lost. I realize that there are millions of w10 PCs with Cortana on them but I don't know of anyone who uses Cortana in voice mode on their PC other than me. MS needs to go down the same path as Amazon and Google did with their small cheap smart speakers like the Dot or Mini. Make a cheap version they can sell for under $40, promote the heck out of it everywhere and get into people's homes. A cheap Xiaomi speaker isn't going to do it; it needs to be a MS product. Not only will this get Cortana more exposure, but it will also expand the data set for their machine learning. That is how the AI will improve faster with more user interactions to learn from.  The other problem MS has is that Cortana isn't even in people's minds as a virtual assistant. I have read several articles lately about virtual assistants, all of them mentioned Alexa, Google, and Siri; not one of them mentioned Cortana.  I have an Invoke and people ask it it’s Alexa. I tell them it is Cortana from MS and they say that they didn't even know MS made something like that, but why didn't I just buy an Echo. I heard several people at work the other day talking about how cool it was Alexa coming to their PC. Amazon emails me weekly with a list of the new things Alexa can do. Most of them are trivial, but it at least gives the perception that Amazon is putting a lot of resources toward expanding Alexa. Amazon had a huge presence at CES promoting Alexa. This is how you build brand awareness and excitement.  Both of which MS needs in this area.
  • I really wonder how well Google Hopme and Alexa have really sold. Maybe in the U.S they have done well, but I only know of one person that have got a Google Home and no one with an alexa, sure my circle of people is not that large, but a fair few of them like tech stuff and I would have thought that for most of them something like Alexa or Google home would be something they would buy.  Maybe these things are not in as many peoples homes as we are lead to believe.  
  • A couple articles I read suggest that there about 45 million smart speakers in US homes, of which 30 million are Amazon devices. The other 15 million are mostly Google devices. Estimate are 55% of US homes will have them by 2022, Longer term, virtual assitants will show up in lots of other devices, Alexa is already coming to PCs, phone,, cars, appliances, etc. This is when their usage will really take off. 
  • People use assistants on their phone and at home, no one except the data analysts at MS know the truth in regards to Cortanas user adoption across different platforms, however, the fact they dumped mobile and screwed over soo many of us multiple times in multiple ways does not bode well for the future love they are wanting for Cortana.  The future will be Google Now at home and on mobile for those in that ecosystem and Alexa and Alexa for Business (integrated with Cortana) for mobile and work.  Google is a threat and Amazon and MS both know they need each other to neutralise that threat.  Cortana on its own IS dead and if you think its not then you need your head read, just ask Siri :P
  • If you don't make it wrong to begin with, you don't have to fix it later. Microsoft, do it right the first time.
  • I must say the positioning of the Always Connected PCs and "Surface Phone" as a PC makes a whole lot of sense if they're integrating Cortana as a true AI in the operating system. Much more believable that a *computer* can have a true AI than that a *phone* can...
  • A "phone" IS a "computer".  
  • Certainly NOT (yet)..... You'll have to wait for the Surface notPhone
  • Doesn't this reek of Old Microsoft . . . ?
  • Growing functionality? I can't add flights to my Cortana Notebook right now. I don't know why? I used this function a few months ago. And even on Android, it's only going to be mainly available in Western countries? Come on.... What are you doing, Microsoft? I can use Google's digital assistant in Malaysia without any complicated workarounds. And, is Microsoft really that naive to believe that they can thrive on their competitors' platforms? If Nutella really believes that, he should start suing Google for putting all their ******* **** into their OS. How is it that Microsoft got sued in the past for putting Internet Explorer deep in Windows that it hindered competition, but Google can put Chrome everywhere in their OS and you can't remove it, but nobody is suing them?
  • The first thing they need is more languages and regions...
  • I'm hoping that features on Android are either added to the Cortana app or to a Windows app. I don't want to change my launcher to get a good experience on my Android phone and Windows 10 devices. Only way I'm switching launchers is if they copy features of the other launchers.
    I have Cortana installed, yet if I clear a notification on my phone, it doesn't clear on the PC. Microsoft needs to make the mobile experience better on Android and add features similar to Apple ecosystem like making calls from laptop, picking up calls on laptop, messaging from laptop.
  • Still think they should have a little Cortana pop up in the right and interact with the user like the old school assistants did.
  • Have tried cortana a few times over the years in the uk but didn't give anything useful, if could delete cortana from my pc I would.
    I wish once I have seen a notification it wouldn't appear on the next device I open, gets on my t#ts
  • On my Windows 10 laptop I'd enabled Cortana months ago then disabled it because I was disappointed with its performance. Now that I'm on the current stable build, just for fun, I re-enabled it this week and I'm very impressed. "Hey Cortana" rivals the accuracy and speed of results that I get on my Android phone with "Ok Google" at the moment.
  • Why anyone needs cortana on android?? Cortana is behind to other assistants available on android and untill Microsoft can give the best experience on android maybe then we can talk about it. gone the days to use anything coming from Microsoft just because it is from Microsoft.
  • Microsoft still hasn't integrated Cortana with their To-Do App! WTF is wrong with them?
  • good point...i think they had ADHD
  • Microsoft told me to drop my Lumia and get an iPhone or Android. While I've been given an iPhone and there is SIRI natively in the platform, why should i install Cortana. Cortana will need to be extra specially good to compel me to install Cortana in my iPhone while SIRI so well in there. In a way, I take it Microsoft has told me to go use SIRI.
  • The totally told you to drop Cortana...and MS....it's like they want to divest consumers....
  • Baseline feature would be to have multiple device awareness on the same network. So dumb that my PC, phone (when I had a Lumia), Xbox with Kinect, and Invoke, might all respond to Hey Cortana.
  • MS needs to get back in the mobile game...where people can really use Cortana...and yes, get it more world centric than the US If I'm with Google, why use Cortana?  Same with Apple?  
  • Re: pseudo-Windows Phone with Live tiles Microsoft really had no choice but to go with an Android style design for their launcher. Android's plethora of widgets would never gell with Live Tiles. They barely gell with stock Android (in fact they don't). The Microsoft Launcher's feed is actually really good and fills the Live Tile void. Sure, it's not space efficient as Live Tiles, but the cards provide information on the fly like Live Tiles.
    My Microsoft Launcher feed has a mixture of default Launcher cards and third party apps - my favourite being the Talon Twitter widget.
  • Cortana response and useability is a total joke. Especially on mobile when I had a Windows 10 smartphone. Doesn't respond when saying Hey Cortana often times. Even if I yell into the microphone. But perks up randomly all the time. Sent feed back for a couple years. Never got fixed. Got fed up and returned all Windows smartphones. Just returned the IDOL 4S for same reason among many other issues.
  • I have disabled cortana on my machine, I really do not have any need for it.  
  • It is hard to speak about unification cross platform since Microsoft presence on other platforms is dependent on rivals like Apple and Google. What is going to stop them to tweak the OS in a way which will even more limit possibilit to run 3rd party assitants?
    Regions restrictios of Cortana is the biggest problem for Microsoft.
    They just think in small perspective again and no wonder articles “Cortana is not dead” are needed.
    When such articles starts to show up it means it is dead already....
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  • Microsoft is starting to feel its failure in various market spaces coming back to hit them. For example, they recently added the ability for Cortana to control smart hubs -- like Nest, SmartThings, Wink, etc. Great. Only... none of these hubs allow you to setup these devices in Windows. They all use iOS or Android phones to set them up. None of them use a modern app, a desktop app, or even a web browser. So... if you have to use your phone to setup these devices... umm... why does Microsoft now get that they are going to use them to control the devices?
  • I love Windows Central --- However this is a terrible article... unless the argument towards it isn't specifically on unified cross-platform... is without explanation. I don't see a lot of migration from one platform to another, and if in some cases that "let's say Apple users ditch iPhone for an Android", does that audience expect Cortana to look exactly like it did on their ditched iPhones? furthermore and to play devils advocate... if they expected a unified look across platforms such as migration, is the argument trying to express that users will not use Cortana because it slightly looks different than the device they have decided to ditch... please bring clarity to my observation towards this article.
  • And why all this subjectivity, I don't use Android or iPhone, and I keep seeing references to, this one looks nicer than the other, side by side screen shots, from outside looking in, all I have to say about that is, "SAYS YOU" why is subjectivity journalism ?
  • This is not your best work Dan -- strike that, I am sorry, just realized it was published as a rant.... I feel terrible now :( how do you delete comments? I go into edit, and no delete icon ?
  • Surely Msoft need to embrace highly developed assistants like Alexa. The lack of Cortana Dev implies this is the strategy. Shame because we still use it for basic websearches but it's not really going anywhere is it.
  • For too much of the world Cortana isn't just dead, it never even existed
  • Do not stress folks, Nadella will be consistent with his past performance and just drop the whole thing. Cynical? Yep, but how can anyone put their trust in anything MS suggests these days?
  • MS is running out of breath quickly these days; I miss super-energized Steve Balmer. So many good ideas with solid initial release that have, well... faltered. Zune. WinPhone 8. Cortana. What is happening with their AR project - haven't heard many news about that, either. Cortana had good start but hasn't evolved since. Have they added any new country/region since initial release? There's no roadmap, either. Years after release, only way for me to use Cortana on myLumia is to keep phone in US region; I live in New Zealand. It is even English speaking country. Shouldn't be that hard. But there's no visible effort, really. MS is trying to port what they already have to other platforms, but they don't seem to be working on improving it any further. I loved using Cortana to receive and send TXT messages while I drive... but that was my major usage. Once I replace my Lumia with (probably) iPhone, I will try to use Siri. I always prefer native solutions on any platform I use.