Microsoft's Cortana would be the AI punching bag of the world were it even mentioned amongst Google, Amazon, and Apple's efforts at all. It's not. But despite Cortana missing out in the consumer space as a glorified smart home and quiz expert, Microsoft still has plans for the assistant.
The recent release of Windows 10 20H1 (18980) for Fast Ring Insiders shows an unexpected shift for the company. Cortana is available globally, albeit in English (for now), as the company plans to bring the feature to Windows users in Spring 2020. People have been asking for this since 2015. Even if the company had no plans for regionalization of the service, it seemed to be the least they could do.
So why the sudden change of heart? The decision may be less of a reversal and more of a fundamental shift in what Cortana is and will be for Redmond.
Cortana changes are coming
Ever since Windows Phone was put on notice, the future of Cortana seemed uncertain. After all, with a default experience for smartphones, how and where would Cortana grow?
The change in strategy came once Cortana went under the tutelage of the Office team in October 2018. Microsoft's new goal is not for Cortana to a typical consumer-AI helper, but something that links Microsoft products together when combined with machine learning and AI. As Andrew Shuman, Corporate Vice President of Cortana Engineering told us back in May, "Fundamentally Cortana is a foundational horizontal piece … like Microsoft Account, Microsoft Store, Microsoft Search."
This shift to a more localized Cortana experience is continuing in 2019 with making the AI an app, and connecting to other endpoints (e.g., Microsoft To Do).
Microsoft sees Cortana as a productivity assistant that leverages the in-depth knowledge gained from users being a Microsoft Account holder – Outlook, To Do, Microsoft Launcher, Microsoft Translator, OneNote, Edge, Windows 10, Office 365, LinkedIn, and more.
This strategy is something we wrote about back in May 2018 even before the Office team finally took hold of Cortana.
Related is the idea that we may see the concept of "agent" begin to fade. While Cortana has a name and even a visual representation, the notion of agents may have been a passing phase in the development of AI. The "stuff" that powers Cortana – Bing, Microsoft Search, AI, and machine learning – is what matters. The front-end is just for show and part of the user experience model. (This is why it is always weird when people talk of Cortana being dead. The technology behind it will never go away as it is the future of computing for Microsoft).
Finally, some of these changes are related to pulling Cortana out of the OS and making it a modularized app that can be dynamically updated through Microsoft Store.
Cortana is less about Bing, more about Office
Ironically, Microsoft is not opening Cortana to the world because it's suddenly regionalized or it added language support for more countries. In fact, there's no evidence that has happened even though it was supposedly the original holdup. (Microsoft did state that they will "share more details of our language rollout plans as they progress," however).
Instead, what looks to be happening is Cortana is shifting from that know-it-all web-search assistant that Google and Amazon have nearly perfected to something that relies on local information. Microsoft's strength is what's on your computer and connected to your Microsoft Account.
Because of less dependence on Bing and its related experiences, Cortana can be a productivity AI. Cortana can - and will - have access to your calendar, contacts, tasks, your Windows 10 timeline, Edge browsing history, shopping habits, Skype calls, LinkedIn contacts, and general preferences. Those are things that Amazon and Google do not have access to since they are not native apps on Windows 10, nor do they hook into Office 365. Moreover, Microsoft can do it in an information compliant way to satisfy businesses - again, something Amazon and Google cannot achieve.
To the consumer, this may all seem trivial. But from Microsoft's perspective (and success with Windows 10 and Office 365), think of all the data they have access to for those who use a PC and have LinkedIn. The ability to have AI leverage that information to better assist with work-life is something that no one has done yet.
Google, Amazon, and especially Apple are all positioned to help you with Spotify, turning on the lights, ordering you diapers, or telling you random trivia. What those systems are not very good at is being useful to actually solve problems. (Google, however, does have some leverage here due to the proliferation of Google services like Android and Gmail).
One could endlessly lament Microsoft's failures in smartphones, which then killed the original hopes for Cortana. But the company seems to be doing what it has done in all other areas recently: play to its strengths.
At its heart, Microsoft is not a consumer brand. It's a computing company that makes software and services. The most profound expressions of that are Windows, Office, LinkedIn, Skype, and the recent spade of apps on Android and iOS. Building Cortana around those experiences versus trying to be something it is not only the right move for Microsoft, but it's also their only move.
Whatever the reasons, however, it's just good news that more users will soon be able to use Cortana on Windows 10.