Opening Cortana on Windows 10 to the world is overdue, but also a shift in strategy

Cortana and Alexa
Cortana and Alexa (Image credit: Daniel Rubino/Windows Central)

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

Cortana and Microsoft logo

Cortana and Microsoft logo (Image credit: Windows Central)

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.

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.

  • This is all very exciting, because now we can finally get an AI that is actually useful to use and not something that you end up using only once in a blue moon.
  • Don't want to sound like bleached but what's the point with Cortana in 2019 with no native mobile platform nor home automation skill set?
  • Basically Cortana is just for work. It's not for consumers anymore.
  • Much like MS.
  • Doesn't it still have the home automation skills? Or are you referring to something else?
  • Sounds like the future for Cortana is fairly limited then. I have Google and Amazon speakers in my home currently and use them for simple tasks such as timers/alarms, music, home automation, shopping lists, and random trivia-type questions. While those are admittedly pretty simple, they are useful enough to justify the speakers in my mind. However, when it comes to work-related tasks, I can't really envision an AI being very helpful when it comes to productivity. I know Microsoft showed a video at Build of a future Cortana assisting a worker with meeting planning, but it was all done via voice, which is just not practical in most workplaces. If MS expects the chat-based UI to help gain traction, they will probably disappointed. Currently, the strong suit of AI is convenience. Doing things you could do on your own, but faster and easier. Not coincidentally, this is something MS has already been working for years with windows. If I'm already at a PC, there is very little a "Cortana" can do to improve my workflow other than a few voice shortcuts. Until AI can go beyond this capability (which is quite a a few years off in my opinion), Cortana will continue to remain mostly in obscurity.
  • The funny thing is, Alexa has failed to give me a satisfying answer a couple of times so I had to have the echo open Cortana who gave me the answer I was looking for.
  • My company finally upgraded my work laptop from W7 to W10 and I was looking forward to doing all kinds of cool work things with Cortana sitting at my desk. Alas, Microsoft made it voice only and I'll be damned if I start talking to my computer out-loud in the office. While I prefer Cortana to have both a consumer and work side, I can live with a work-centric Cortana as long as I can also communicate via typing.
  • BTW, i don't think its weird at all for people to predict that Cortana will be dead. When people on this website say Cortana is dead or dying, they are not referring to the AI backend. They are specifically referring to the personified virtual assistant aspect of Microsoft's AI. I mean, if Cortana eventually becomes embedded in OS/Office and takes on the role of making smart suggestions and loses voice as the main interaction method, then most people will see the computer assisting them, not some specific virtual entity. That's when Cortana will die.
  • Considering Cortana lost the typing interface and not voice, I guess that means Cortana lives on.
  • So...
    Way too late, but this is of course a given.
    Now that Microsoft has dropped it's mobile line, Cortana as we knew (about) it is no longer relevant. And Bing has likely suffered from it, so it is losing relevancy as well...
    And now that the rest of us are finally getting Cortana in English, they're moving to Cortana being an Office service? If there's one place where Cortana in English makes NO SENSE for the rest of the world, it's in an Office-context, where we operate in our native language 99,9 % of the time! The one environment where English ISN'T an option!
    This is sooo moronic...!
  • I beg to differ.
    Office is used in work environments.
    Many work environments are international and English is the language used. That's where Cortana will make a lot of sense.
    It's not a consumer gimmick.
  • It’s now reduced to a business-only gimmick, having failed with consumers.
  • Cortana needs to have some sort of easy interfacing for local tasks, even a Macro Engine for custom actions! Insanely, on a Windows PC, I am forced to rely on Alexa Routines (triggered from the PC app) to "start my day", which uses an Eventghost Macro routed through my Android phone using Tasker and Autovoice to turn on my htpc-connected TV and open two browser windows next to each other and load a web radio on one and real time public transit information on the other. It's convoluted but with Cortana one could only make it work through IFTTT (or using Chrome) - but IFTTT is spotty and usually there is quite a delay. Having something run natively on the machine would be much prefered.
  • What will the Office team name this service? Doesn't sound like Cortana would be a good fit.
  • It'll be Cliptana, obvs.
  • Great read. I like this change for many reasons, but two primarily. The first is that I have found voice assistants to be of very limited usefulness so far. I don't want Cortana to be another gimmicky hands-free calling system or way to order diapers. That sort of thing adds very little to my life. The second is that where I do need "AI" is at work. I want to call up books and academic articles quickly and accurately, and to keep track of my annotations and versions with minimal effort from me. I want my devices to be able to predict what files or contacts I need next. I want to manipulate a big group of files or some data quickly and easily without using, say, regex or having to go line by line making changes or firing up statistical software, in the way Excel can fill columns, but more powerfully and intelligently. I want Outlook to write emails for me and mail merge them, and to fill in my calendar with relevant deadlines for, say, a conference I wanted to attend - all without much effort from me. That's the stuff that would save me time and hassle. As mentioned, MS is already building AI-like features into Office. I see it in PowerPoint (and a little bit in Word, Excel and OneNote) almost every day. While not prefect, it's useful and saves me time and is getting better month by month.
  • Google dominated assistant in Android, cars, TVs and home. impossible Microsoft with out phone, home, car, TVs to compete with Google
  • What does the Cortana AI actually do (in more detail) in all the office and native apps?
  • I don't know about Cortana, but for example, in PowerPoint, AI floats suggestions for slide layouts based on what you paste into the slide. It can recognize a graph or a picture of a person and adjust accordingly. If you put content into a slide that looks like your explaining three things, it will suggest an appropriate (that is, actually useful) template. It is surprisingly useful for teachers like me making slideshows all the time. It's not perfect, though. For example, it sometimes doesn't float the layout that you think would be the best, and then it makes it hard to find that one in particular.
  • It will be weird asking Cortana for something and getting stuff on my PC, but searching in File Manager and getting stuff off the web. [scratches head]
  • I use Cortana more than I thought I would during my normal workday. I schedule meetings, have her check my calendar and call people. I'd love to see tight integration with Teams and broader capabilities in general (like supporting multiple office 365 accounts) but overall, I found Cortana to be surprisingly useful already.