Hey Cortana, why does Microsoft make it so hard to find out what's new with you?

Cortana and Microsoft logo
Cortana and Microsoft logo (Image credit: Windows Central)

Microsoft's biggest problem around its Cortana digital assistant is perception. The Siri and Google Now competitor has a rich feature set, and while the focus is shifting from pure app-like experience to a more nuanced smart-OS, there's a lot of potential.

One area that is not great for Cortana — besides restricted regional availability — is knowing what Cortana can and cannot do, or more specifically, if any new features have been added. Amazon has proven that this problem is solvable, without much effort.

A simple email

Microsoft has a decent web presence for Cortana . Head to Microsoft.com/cortana (opens in new tab), and you are directed to a page with tips on getting organized, working across devices, details on "her" valuable skills (opens in new tab), and more.

Additionally, users can find more much for Cortana to do by clicking the search area in Windows 10 or head to the Notebook. There you can find a deep link to more skills, information on the connected home, productivity, family, connected services, and lifestyle details.

All these bits are good and a step up from where Cortana was just two years ago. Much more work is going into Cortana behind the scenes, especially with ex-Acommpli founder Javier Soltero taking over the development of the assistant in March.

But the lowest hanging fruit is still missing: a simple email or message about new enhancements.

While opting into more emails is not always wanted, Amazon's regular Alexa updates are very useful. A simple message titled "What's new with Alexa?" hits users' inboxes regularly, and with it comes a list of things to try and another area with "most requested." None of this is groundbreaking or amazing. But a simple email that tells users what new commands they can use with Cortana, what new skills have been added, some examples of popular commands for Cortana, and even some new features they are working on would be extremely beneficial.

Amazon's newsletter about Alexa is simple and brilliant.

For PC users, some of this may be of less interest, but for those who have the Harman Kardon Invoke speaker (and future Cortana-connected smart home gear), such updates are essential. I've been told that Microsoft does similar for those in the Cortana beta testing group. Occasional emails inform them that a new feature like "remove lists or list items using voice" is now available with a bunch of example commands ("Cortana, add New York to my travel list") give concrete use cases for users to try.

Microsoft could just as easily put in a 'What's new' area under Cortana's Notebook. My hunch is such a log may not be updated all that often, but why not let users see a running changelog of new features?

Discovery is hard with digital assistants

Harmon Kardon Invoke with Cortana

Harmon Kardon Invoke with Cortana (Image credit: Windows Central)

This all goes back to discovery with digital assistants – any and all of them. Amazon boasts thousands of skills, but learning what is available, and the keywords needed to activate them, is no easy task.

The discovery problem with assistants will slowly go away as artificial intelligence (AI) improves over the coming years, but for now, this semi-sophisticated voice activation and trigger system is more brute force than nuance.

Because these systems aren't very intelligent, Microsoft is going to have to do a lot of spoon feeding to help users make the most of Cortana. By providing a simple, occasional email listing new skills, current popular features users are leveraging, and maybe even what's coming next, people may feel less concern over the future of Microsoft's assistant. And it would be a subtle reminder to try it out.

Pushing aside intrusive emails that some may see as spam, Microsoft could keep a changelog or what's-new list in Cortana. Imagine just asking what Cortana "Hey Cortana, what's new for you?" or "Hey Cortana, what can you do now?".

Most of this seems like basic software development and communication 101, but Microsoft sometimes needs a kick. Well, here's a punt, Microsoft.

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.

  • Wrong. Microsoft's biggest problem around its Cortana digital assistant is its complete focus on the US market.
  • Very easy to get up to date info here, outside the US, though. Can Cortana do it? No. What new features are coming? None. Watch out US, if you keep pushing for the same level of info on this as we have outside the US, they may just go the same route with you.
  • Cortana's focus is English. It would be nice, but i think desperate was an over statement. Desperate would be the App and Game selection in the Store. Cortana needs more supporting users.
  • Considering most of the largest tech companies are US companies, I don't think your veiled threat carries much weight. Also, we already don't care that much about you. That's why people always say we don't know much about things outside their country. We're busy minding our own business, and living life (which is not a trivia competition). We, generally, mind their own business, and aren't really into being on the internet trying to dictate what companies in China or France do with their services. Other countries can benefit form being a bit more self-reliant, and growing their own tech ecosystem; instead of shipping all of their talent to the U.S.A.
  • "Wrong. Microsoft's biggest problem around its Cortana digital assistant is its complete focus on the US market.
    WRONG. I literally open this article (2nd paragraph) mentioning this point as a big issue. But thanks for not-reading. Second, you can have MULTIPLE things that need fixing or general criticism. In this case, forget outside the US - say I don't really care - my point made here is still 100 percent valid. Even more so if they ever DO roll out to other countries. Stop being argumentative just for its sake.
  • They're still stuck in the office/ windows continuum 😉; they've just shifted the way it's delivered to the cloud. Yeah they make lots of money on their cloud hosting/server managing services with Azure, but everything they do outside of the items listed above are delayed, too late, or cancelled. They have a singular business only focus forgetting that consumers are those same people who's technical perception has changed to reflect what Google and Apple brought to the table in mobile but Microsoft in ultimately still stuck in the past and can't let go like BlackBerry refuses to realize that modern users don't want a mechanical keyboard on a cell phone. For example, we've been waiting fours Andromeda, something Microsoft had allegedly been focused on for something and what happened? By the time they released something, everyone else has already done it or used the concept in a tangible product.
  • Your phrase 'restricted regional availability' is quiet euphemistic. Cortana is just an unusable product in Europe. Why bother with all its other shortcomings?
  • Of course it matters what happens to Cortana in the US. However, most people by far know exactly what Cortana can do and everything about what new things are coming. She can do very little, and it ain't gonna change.
  • What can Cortana NOT do? She is better than any other control for Hue lights. She can control my nest devices. She has been able to read and send verbal text messages since 2013 (something Google Assistant has JUST figured out). She has been ahead of the curve on MANY abilities - but no one knows it. She is also the best and first assistant to do reminders based on time, date, location, or person you are interacting with. I love Cortana.
  • Dan you might be right but here in Australia ms stinks. It DOES appear that ms is usa-exclusive. Sorry to disagree with you on this one.
  • The root cause of all of MS'S issues (besides marketing) is the fact that Windows Central (particularly Zac, Daniel, and Jason) always have to direct Microsoft how to run their business...
    Maybe Zac, Daniel, and Jason, should run MS?🤷🏽
  • They should be on the board. 😁
  • They might keep nadella honest.
  • Nadella isn't dishonest, he's just completely clueless.
  • Well, they are journalists and they write opinion piece in media. You might as well say that the Wall Street Journal shouldn't print anything but stock price table
  • True, you can't even download a Cortana for your phone in Germany. On Xbox she is a mix of English and German.
  • Because Cortana is not Satya daughter
  • I don't think we have access to her outside the US either.
  • Not advertising/marketing is in MS's DNA. They have always had the 'build a better mousetrap...' philosophy. When they do feel the need to market, they have so little experience, they do it poorly. Sometimes they get lucky and the campaign is so cringe worthy, it serves the purpose of creating buzz, incidentally. (Parochial school kids dancing on tables and snapping Surface keyboards..right.).
  • Daniel, I totally agree. Microsoft needs to keep us more aware of what capability Cortana has, on each platform and in what regions. I have feeling, though, that they really are scaling down Cortana development, so we aren't going to see much new. Until they bring feature parity across all systems, it's going nowhere. So far, the absolute best user experience is on Windows phones. After that, it's PCs, Xbox and then Android/iPhone. They seem to be doing nothing outsided a few backend updates.
  • I have never seen a great company market so poorly. It has been this way for years and is mind-boggling. Just year after year of product marketing crap - so much potential lost.
  • Asking Cortana "What can I say" should cause the device to provide a summary of popular commands and then a list of command subject categories and then prompt the user to asks for more details on a subject category. When describing a subject category, Cortana should provide a very detailed command list for the entire category/subject. It is very sad that I have Cortana and use it everyday to simply check the weather. It would be nice for the device to educate me if I request her to educate me. I don't care how long the thing needs to talk, I asked.
  • Cortana is no longer useful as a digital assistant. Even when using Outlook.com as your email, it no longer tracks flights, packages, etc. automatically while parsing your email. It no longer sends you traffic alerts, or tries to help you when you travel. Instead, I'll get a random prompt trying to tell me of a useless capability it has 'Remind me to buy eggs the next time I go to the store' or some such nonsense. Of course, those prompts don't work, even if you try them. I'm sorry, I just can't use it anymore, and that's a shame. Former WP user :(
  • Cortana tracks my flights just fine. She even adds my spouses flights when she emails them to me. The purchase reminders are actually very handy and I use them a lot. Remind to get X when I get to Y. Remind me to tell someone X. Remind me to do something when I get somewhere. Probably amongst the tasks I have Cortana do the most.
  • I think it depends on the region. Cortana no longer takes any information from my outlook emails anymore. No flights, no accommodation, nothing. Even a query on traffic now just shows me a useless Bing search for "how's the traffic" or "how to ask Cortana for traffic".
  • I'm in the US. No flight tracking based on emails. No package tracking based on emails. I'm glad it works for someone, but I'm skeptical at this point. I would note that it USED to work. Outlook.com DOES add such items to my calendar automatically. Cortana does nothing. No gate information when I get to the airport. Nothing.
  • Those features never worked for me, even back on Windows Phone where Cortana worked a lot better and had more features in general.
  • Cortana used to always let me know about stuff in my email. However I can't remember the last time I was told about a package. I get constant notification through Alexa though. I'm always buying stuff online. It's a shame seeing yet another potentially powerful MS product get death by a thousand cuts due to stagnation and lack of balls from the MS SLT. Soon, despite all this so called investment, nothing is really stopping them from making Cortana not a focus with this kind of attitude.
  • Agreed. In the early days we had an info thread with updates that come from a MS employee (forum user Talderon): https://forums.windowscentral.com/cortana/277645-cortana-news-coming-ins... Something like that or a Cortana team blog would be great. MS also had this nice uservoice page for Cortana with lots of fun and seemingly doable feature suggestions, but they also closed that. https://cortana.uservoice.com We can still discuss Cortana in the feedback hub, but it's not as fun.
  • C'est pour laisser croire que l'informatique c'est uniquement du shopping
  • Cortana is being repurposed as a business tool, right? IT departments will then be responsible for training employees. Microsoft doesn't need to worry about it.
  • IT departments will not train employees on this unless there is some grappling need to do so. A few checkboxes and a little group policy and she's gone for good.
  • I agree that MS needs to teach us how to use Cortana better. I didn't know I could tell Cortana to take a selfie until I saw an LG phone commercial and I thought...I wonder if Cortana can do that? She does!
  • Cortana gives the best in car experience for calls and texts, hands down! I wish there was a Microsoft Auto like Android Auto where her functions could really shine while in the car.
  • It does, I rely a lot on it on my 950 xl.
  • I have one of my 4 in-car speed dial buttons set to call cortana. It's very useful to get random info or start a song on Spotify (when it works) or initiate a text conversation hands-free.
  • Only if you have a windows phone. I loved Cortana in the car on my WP. On android, it is pretty much useless for that.
  • I miss this so much! Android Auto does nothing of the sort, and when I (briefly) had iOS, all of those features required a CarPlay-enabled car. Because sure, let's buy a car based on it having CarPlay... Cortana's hidden beauty on Windows Phone was the call spoofing feature. If I got a text driving down the highway, Cortana would interrupt the radio and come through the Bluetooth of the car. I could talk directly to her with ZERO lag and reply to messages, ask for directions, tell her to call someone... I have never seen anything that works so smoothly. And now it lies with a dead OS. :( Here's hoping someone picks it up for the future!
  • That worked beautifully with my 950 XL. Then I got a Note 8 and the feature went away. Maybe I should keep my 950XL in the car for the cool features and carry my Note 8 with me everywhere else.
  • What about that new Javier guy who's on charge of Cortana? What is he doing? Clearly not working on Cortana.
  • He started like, not even 2 months ago.
  • Satya probably will reduce his funding and staff so I'd almost suggest that he start looking for a new job ASAP! If it isn't Azure or Microsoft 365, it's not that important in his, "To-Do-List"!
  • Again with Microsoft, what hurts it's not knowing that they're working on things. I don't mean that we get streaming of their weekly meetings, but it would be nice at least that they said they're working on anything related to Cortana.
  • Agreed. We get all kinds of news about what other companies are working on which helps build buzz, anticipation and excitement. What we get from Microsoft is crickets.
  • I think Microsoft has already moved focus of Cortana over to enterprise from consumer. Mostly because Google and Amazon are leaps ahead of Cortana in consumer usefulness. I also agree the lack of broader compatibility beyond the US market makes Cortana very broken and worthless to many. But seriously, no matter if its Alexa, Google Home or Cortana. They seem more purposed on a device or smartphone app then a PC. I like my Echo device, but wouldn't install Alexa on my PC.
  • I think Cortana's back end integrations will continue to progress, perhaps without announcements. I don't see any announcements coming our way unless they release a competing Z-Wave hub of some sort that is Cortana directed which people can add devices to. Right now, my best Cortana feature is my SmartThings hub because using Alexa requires asking such specific things that I do not have an issue with on Cortana.
  • I barely ask Alexa to do anything in my home. I use Cortana for all of my devices though SmartThings. I hated asking Alexa to turn off individual lights in a room when Cortana could shut the entire room off. I have 3 living room lights. With Alexa I had to say, turn off living room light 1,..... 2,..... 3. Otherwise, she would tell me there are multiple devices that share that name and ask which one. Cortana would just kill the living room if I said, turn off living room lights. Things like that kept me using Cortana over Google Assistant or Alexa. Siri has been dead to me ever since Apple bought it and remotely uninstalled Siri from my iPhone 3GS and tried to pitch her as new for the iPhone 4S.
  • Yep, i have motion sensors but if I want the lights off immediately or if the power goes off and all the lights come back on, "Cortana turn off all the lights," is quick and reliable. I have one light in my sons room and if i ask the echo dot to turn off the light Alexa always says there are multiple devices with that name. Shame Samsung bought SmartThings but if Microsoft embraced a z-wave hub I could move my devices to, I'd be down with that.
  • Perception counts for a lot. The perception is that Amazon and Google are going gangbusters with Alexa and Assistant. From huge presences at CES to small but consistent efforts such as weekly emails like Daniel mentions; the perception (and reality) is that both of them are continuing to invest heavily in their assistants and the ecosystems that support them. The perception for Microsoft is exactly the opposite even if the reality is somewhat different.
  • Well, there is one way to fix perception that they still haven't really figured out yet.... MARKETING. Honestly, with how many times they dropped the ball due to negative perceptions with lack of marketing, you would think they would get a replacement for their current current marketing lead.
  • I agree marketing is important, but it is hard to market when you don't have any products. The only current products (other than PCs) that have Cortana in them are the Invoke speaker and the still unavailable Johnson thermostat. 20% of the US population (47 million) have access to a smart speaker. I just read an article that said that Microsoft sold less than .3% of the samrt speakers in Q4 of 2017 (<50k out of 17 million sold). Alexa is getting put into almost every type of device you can imagine. Google Assistant isn't in as many products but is making up for it with improved capabilities and surpassed Amazon in smart speaker sales in Q1 of 2018. Apple just hired Google's former head of AI and machine learning so they appear to be getting more serious about this space as well.
  • I hope things change when they launch a mobile PC. Lack of Windows 10 in our pockets pushed Cortana out of its depth. Native ecosystem + consumer mindshare = success.
  • I use Cortana everyday and really like the intigration with email, schedules, reminders, and general information. I switched from a 950xl to a Note 8 and really miss "Hey Cortana".
    We are intigration smart home technology into our home and I have to continually do internet based research to see if what we are going to install is Cortana compatible, and I have to admit I'm sort of shell shocked that they won't drop support and leave me stuck in an ecosystem of Cortana.
  • Cortana represents the queen of missed opportunities for Microsoft. They just don't get consumers.
  • The Verge recently had an interesting article under the heading "Microsoft wants to win back the consumers it let down" (https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/20/17594508/microsoft-consumer-push-2018). It seems that MS at the recent Inspire partner show presented a new strategy to win back consumers: "Microsoft executive Yusuf Mehdi reportedly opened up a presentation on the company’s new “modern life” initiative by admitting Microsoft’s consumer issues. “In the last couple of years, we’ve lost a little of that magic with consumers,” said Mehdi. During the session Mehdi also revealed that this “year we begin the journey to win back consumers with our vision.” So maybe we can finally look forward to improvements in this area. Perhaps the Surface Go is an indication of that.
  • Hi, nice article !
    Here in Belgium, Cortana is not available (natively). Nobody here knows Cortana... :-(
  • The only thing a want to say is like the JLO song: "Y Pandora pa' cuando?
    When Pandora is going to Cortana is the question
  • I purchased an echo for 39 cnd this week. I didn't buy a cortana speaker. I feel the price is high. I had her on xbox until xbox wouldn't sell me a Kinect USB adapter for my X. So why use cortana now when u have Alexa?
  • Even with spam mail, as I see it (from a Dutch perspective), language and region support are still the two main problems why Cortana is not part of the daily conversation, basically outside the US. Cortana update email reminders will indeed remain but annoying spam to be deleted and forgotten. Recently google voice has support for Dutch and other languages, which makes the Netherlands and other regions part of the conversation and more relevant to use and invest in. Cortana is not there by far.
  • I have to say everybody that claims about Catana sucks have never used it.
    I have used Alexa and Google home. I have to say Catana is the
    Best in the US. I do here a lot people claim about Alexa and Google home.
  • KJW, what exactly do you feel makes Cortana better, in any category, than the other options?
  • Your second last paragraph is the most important, Cortana should be able to tell you what's changed. To be fair though changelogs weren't much of a priority in Windows Mobile (apps or OS) or windows updates either (iPhone and Android device updates are culprits of this also).
  • The big failure is in not selling a Cortana hub as an XBox accessory. Every XB1S and XB1X owner who didn't score a discontinued Kinect adapter has no way to voice control their TV/console without finding a headset, turning it on and engaging the mic. Thats insanely inconvenient. A Cortana hub marketed as having XB1 control features would have sold to gamers like hot cakes. It's not too late for this idea either, if it launched tomorrow or next year, take my money. But if Microsoft goes the route they announced, of letting Alexa and Google Home control XBox, then there is zero reason to choose Cortana for the home. Why choose Cortana if Alexa can go shopping for me? Why choose Cortana if Google has better integration with my phone and does a much better job at sounding "human?" If Microsoft gives XBox control to the other assistants instead of its own, it will be signing its own end in the living room. Some might argue that marketing Cortana as a unique XBox assistant might not be good branding for her. To that I say, getting in homes is whats good for her, and selling to even a fifth of XBox owners would crush the sales the Samsung-owned-Harmon-Kardon-Cortana has managed. It might even be good for XBox sales (hey PS4, we have useful "exclusive").
  • It'd be nice if there were more Cortana smart speakers. I have the Invoke, which works great. However, there needs to be cheaper ones for the mass market. You see all types of businesses advertising selling Alexa or Google Home devices or capabilities. Not just retailers, but also telecoms, power companies, among others. Microsoft can't get mindshare if there's barely any devices and locations to buy from.
  • My problem with Cortana is her music support on Android. On Windows, saying "play Imagine Dragons" will open up either Groove or Spotify and [spoiler] start playing Imagine Dragons songs. On Android? It runs a Bing search for "play Imagine Dragons." Totally worthless. Ask "what's this song?" and Google Assistant will start listening for music. Cortana on Windows Phone used to listen for music. Now? "What's this song?" ... "Here are some videos for What's this song?" She's also useless on Xbox One since enabling Cortana changes all voice commands from "Xbox, volume up" to "Hey Cortana, volume up" and ups the processing time from 'as soon as you say it' to 'hold on for 15 seconds while I think about it.'