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What is Microsoft doing with Cortana?

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Cortana isn’t dead, but it’s no longer an Alexa competitor

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Cortana started off life as a digital assistant for Windows Phone, before making its way to Windows 10, iOS, and Android. With Windows Phone dead and very few people using Cortana on a PC, Microsoft has made the difficult decision to give up competing with Alexa and Google Assistant. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella revealed earlier this year that the company no longer sees Cortana as a competitor to those other digital assistants, and that it’s embracing the idea of having rivals on its platform. We’re now starting to see how that will work, and what it means for the future of Cortana.

Cortana was once a big part of Windows 10, but it’s now turning into an app. This allows Microsoft to update Cortana more regularly, but it also means the company can separate it from the built-in search experience. Cortana is already being decoupled from search, and Microsoft is now working on a new search interface for Windows 10 that will focus on the company’s new Microsoft Search initiative. Cortana is even being silenced during the Windows 10 setup process.

Windows 10 Cortana
Cortana on phone and PC

While Microsoft used to claim that Cortana was used by more than 150 million people on Windows 10, the reality is that the vast majority were simply using the text-based search function rather than Cortana’s. Digital assistants make far more sense as part of a dedicated device like Amazon’s Echo, than they do on a desktop PC, and Microsoft is finally admitting that.

Cortana is even disappearing from the Xbox One. Microsoft originally planned to launch the digital assistant on its Xbox console back in 2015, but thanks to dashboard development delays it arrived in 2016. It’s now being removed only a few years later. Xbox users will be able to continue to use voice commands with a Kinect sensor, but Cortana will no longer work with a headset. Microsoft is pushing Xbox One owners to use the Cortana app on their phones for voice commands, but it’s a far cry from the original Xbox vision. You can of course use Alexa, too.

The signs of Cortana’s demise have been around for at least 18 months. Cortana was nowhere to be seen at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2018, and the only exception was a Cortana-powered thermostat that no longer lists Cortana as a feature on its product page. Cortana was supposed to launch on fridges, toasters, and many more devices but it only barely made it onto a smart speaker.

Cortana-powered thermostat

After some big changes to Microsoft’s Windows division, former Windows chief Terry Myerson departed the company in the summer last year and Cortana boss Javier Soltero followed a few months later. Microsoft is now refocusing Cortana and stripping back its direct integration in Windows 10 and the Xbox One. Microsoft has a new vision for Cortana, involving conversational interactions for workers who are organizing their days.

Andrew Shuman, Microsoft’s new Cortana boss, outlined the new vision earlier this year in an interview with The Verge. “I think one of the challenges we’ve had over the last couple of years is finding those places where Microsoft can really add a lot of value,” explained Shuman. “I think that what we’ve been really working on over the last year is how we can better embed Cortana across Microsoft 365 experiences and really delight users, especially those users who really are on board, so we have to understand their calendar, their tasks, their work documents, their interfacing with their close collaborators.”

This means Cortana is going to be far more conversational when answering queries by voice or text. We’ve seen parts of this through Microsoft’s bot ambitions and Skype integration for Cortana. The company is now repositioning Cortana as a skill that can run anywhere. Microsoft has also moved the Cortana team out of its AI research division and into its Experiences and Devices team. This should hopefully mean we’ll start to see Cortana show up in products that make sense, like Microsoft’s Surface Headphones.

cortana pulse gif

All of these changes also mean that we’ll likely see Alexa take over parts of the experience Cortana used to offer directly in Windows, while Microsoft tries to integrate the assistant more smartly into its own software. Microsoft is allowing third-party digital assistants to integrate further into Windows 10, meaning Alexa will soon be able to be activated when a PC is locked. Microsoft has also partnered with Amazon so that Alexa and Cortana can talk to each other, but the integration still needs to be far smoother than what it is right now.

Microsoft is also looking towards Android for its mobile Cortana ambitions. The company has been gradually embracing Android as the mobile equivalent of Windows for quite some time now. A big part of this is the company’s Microsoft Launcher that is designed to replace the default Google experience, including the Google Assistant, on Android phones with Microsoft’s own services and Office connectivity. The Microsoft Launcher is even getting the Cortana conversational UI that we saw earlier this year, and this same interface will be available on the Cortana Windows 10 app.

It’s hard to say exactly where Cortana will be in a year or two, but it’s clear from Microsoft’s changes that the company wants its digital assistant to fade more into the background. It will still show up in products where a voice assistant is required, but you’ll be speaking to Alexa or Google Assistant and not Cortana on your next fridge or toaster.