Cortana Play My EmailsSource: Daniel Rubino/Windows Central

What you need to know

  • Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer tried to name Cortana "Bingo."
  • A former PM at Microsoft shared the history of the company's digital assistant, including why it failed.
  • Microsoft ended Windows Phone in 2017 and discontinued the Cortana apps on Android and iOS in 2020.

Microsoft's digital assistant Cortana almost had a different name; Bingo. The former CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, tried to name the assistant Bingo as one of his last acts running the company. Those plans fell through, as the leaked name of Cortana proved popular among bloggers and gamers. Satya Nadella took over for Ballmer as CEO and Microsoft decided to stick with the Cortana name.

That tidbit of information comes from a conversation between Alice Newton Rex and Sandeep Paruchuri, a former project manager at Microsoft. In that discussion, Rex and Paruchuri run through the history of Cortana, including its development process, launch on Windows Phone, and ultimate demise as a competitor to Alexa and Siri.

Cortana, which was supposed to be named Alyx, was shaped by several moving parts within Microsoft, including the development of Windows Phone 8, the growth of consumer-focused AI, and the decline of Smart Search. Apple's Siri also played a role in the birth of Cortana. Microsoft's assistant competed with Apple's, but it took a different approach.

"Siri had recently launched, and it felt like the beginning of something exciting. But Sandeep's team felt Siri was too reactive; you still had to ask it to do something," explained Rex. "So they started to wonder: how can you do what Siri does, but get ahead of the questions people are going to have before they ask them?"

Cortana focused on delivering information to users in scenarios, not just in response to questions. For example, the assistant would pop up with a reminder to purchase flowers when a person walked by a flower shop.

Microsoft also injected Cortana with a personality. This earned positive feedback, as did several aspects of the digital assistant. Unfortunately for Cortana, its success was short-lived. Windows Phone, the platform that showcased Cortana, was shut down in 2017. The Cortana apps on Android and iOS were discontinued in 2020.

Cortana Commuter Reademail AndroidSource: Daniel Rubino/Windows Central

Cortana lives on, but it has a different focus than initially intended. Microsoft baked Cortana into apps like Teams and Outlook as a productivity tool rather than having the digital assistant compete with the likes of Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant.

A combination of factors led to the downfall of Cortana, but an internal shift within Microsoft played a role.

"Across the company, anything that was AI or ML started being branded Cortana, so the name ceased to stand for anything at all," explains Rex's post. "It was the beginning of the end. With the rapid dilution, the brand faltered before it even had a chance to truly reach the masses."

Perhaps Ballmer was right. Cortana did fail as a consumer AI assistant and has since shifted to being a productivity helper in Teams and other Microsoft apps. If he had his way, maybe people would be saying "Hey Bingo" instead of invoking Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa.