Cortana has pretty much taken a back seat in the competition between digital assistants, and Microsoft is well aware that it won’t be able to rival what Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant has to offer. That’s why Microsoft now sees Cortana more as an assistant aide, which can be integrated into Microsoft’s productivity apps such as Outlook or Microsoft Teams.
Because Microsoft can’t really boast about new developer integrations or Cortana-powered devices, Microsoft isn’t talking much about Cortana these days. However, Vice President of Cortana Andrew Shuman did talk last week with veteran reporter Mary Jo Foley during the Petri.com MJFChat show. In case you missed it, the full audio transcript has been published today, and we’ll summarize the highlights for you.
First of all, Shuman made it pretty clear that Cortana will continue to provide the most value to Office 365 users, which doesn’t mean that Microsoft will completely ignore consumers.
We do believe in a world where there’ll be lots of assistance and certainly there are things like online shopping, which Microsoft is not going to participate in, but we want to be a really good partner, with other assistants that can do that kind of thing. But we do think that really focusing our efforts on those users that are truly managing their time, their communications, the documents and projects they’re working on within Microsoft is a place that we can add the most value to those users.
As you may know, Microsoft teamed up with Amazon to allow Cortana and Alexa to talk to each other, opening the gates for more interoperability between digital assistants. As of today, summoning Alexa from Cortana requires a pretty straightforward voice command ("Hey Cortana, open Alexa”), Shuman is aware that the integration isn’t exactly seamless. Microsoft and Amazon are apparently working to smooth things off, but details are still unknown:
We are absolutely aligned with Amazon on wanting to really lower that barrier and make it simpler and simpler to invoke skills more based on your intense and how that can come together. We don’t have anything thing to announce today, but I definitely echo that kind of concern and an area that I think we absolutely want to go after. And it’s an area that I think we’ve seen a lot of great partnership, at the highest levels of our two companies.
Shuman also addressed Microsoft’s controversial decision to remove the Cortana app for iOS and Android in non-US markets. Long story short, Microsoft doesn’t want US consumers to stop being able to configure their Surface headphones or the Harman Kardon Invoke speaker (which was only sold in the US) in that market. But other than that, Shuman believes that Cortana can be much more useful within Microsoft’s own apps:
The more broad point of view is that we want to be better focused on being where users already are, you know, with a hundred plus million weekly active users of outlook mobile, a growing number of millions of users on teams mobile. We think that those places are places where we can help people in situ and you don’t need to go off to an assistant to do something when you want to do it within the application that you’re already kind of using day in, day out.
Lastly, Shuman addressed Cortana’s terrible support for non-English markets. For many Cortana users, the lack of support for international markets is probably what prevented the digital assistant from truly competing with Alexa and Google Assistant, and unfortunately, it looks like nothing will change in the immediate future:
So on windows we will continue to support the markets we support in Windows over the coming year. We do want to think about how as we learn a lot in the US how those can go to global markets, but we also, I point you back to being a little more humble and a little more managing expectations. We have a lot to learn and a lot to think about with users and make sure the experience is great and we want to start that in the U S experience, especially on the mobile devices.
If you're interested in Cortana, we invite you to check out the full interview on Petri.com. It remains to be seen if Microsoft will talk more about Cortana at its Build 2020 developer conference in May, but it's clear that Cortana is here to stay. Shuman also confirmed in the interview that the "Play my emails" feature that recently launched on Outlook for iOS was actively being worked on Android.