We often talk about Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant in the same breath as Alexa and Google Assistant, but Microsoft doesn’t think that’s right. After pushing Cortana as a standalone assistant, Microsoft is shifting gears to make it an add-on for other assistants. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says Cortana should become a “skill for anybody who’s a Microsoft 365 subscriber.”
Microsoft announced Cortana (named after the AI in Halo) at its BUILD conference in 2013. That was back when Apple’s Siri ruled the voice assistant world, so there was still space for Microsoft to get a piece of the pie. However, Google’s machine learning technologies were ramping up. Microsoft had a window, but it hindered Cortana early on by bundling it exclusively with Windows Phone.
Cortana went on to become part of Windows 10, which is where most people have encountered it. Although, fewer people will run into Cortana now that enterprise and pro users will no longer get the Cortana voice prompts during Windows setup. It’s rare to see Cortana mentioned outside of a Windows 10 context because it lacks the support of other assistants. Alexa, Google, and even Apple have support for a raft of smart home devices and online services. Cortana only boasts a handful of integrations.
Nadella’s statement makes it sound like Microsoft isn’t going to position Cortana as a “top-tier” assistant anymore. Instead, you’ll have to plug Cortana into the Assistant you already use. That could act as a tunnel to the Microsoft-specific services and features that integrate Cortana — it’s pushing this as added value for those who subscribe to its cloud services. Amazon has already agreed to plug Cortana into Alexa, but there’s no Google Assistant support yet.
Cortana’s fate may have been sealed as soon as the era of smart speakers dawned. Alexa and Google Assistant already have a huge footprint inside homes, making them vastly more useful than an assistant like Cortana that just lives on your computer. Recognizing that, Nadella likens digital assistants to web browsers that need to interoperate. Microsoft hasn’t completely given up on hardware, though. It will most likely build Cortana into devices like the Surface Headphones, but most users will interact with it via other Assistants.
Changing the focus of Cortana won’t make it more useful, but it does set expectations. When we say it’s not competitive with Alexa, Microsoft can say “it’s not supposed to be.” It’s a less glamorous approach for Microsoft’s once-lauded digital assistant, but it’s probably more realistic.