Cortana may soon recognize different voices, a feature Alexa and Google Assistant have had since 2017. Microsoft isn’t quite giving up on Cortana, but it’s slowly transforming Cortana into something other than a general-purpose digital assistant.

Who Even Uses Cortana?

Amazon has the Echo, Google has the Google Home, and Apple has the HomePod. But did you know that Microsoft has its own Cortana speaker? The Harman Kardon Invoke features Cortana. It hasn’t caught on. In fact, it’s so unpopular that it doesn’t even rank in market share analysis of smart speakers. In the fourth quarter of 2017, Harman Kardon sold 30,000 Invokes and Amazon sold 9.7 million Echo devices. Yikes.

So who uses Cortana? Every Windows 10 PC ships with a big Cortana box next to its Start button. Microsoft has said over 150 million people use Cortana, but it’s unclear whether those people are actually using Cortana as a voice assistant or just using the Cortana box to type searches on Windows 10.

Really—in a world full of open plan offices where people have keyboards, how many people are going to talk to their PCs, even if Cortana works well? A voice assistant is much less useful on a Windows PC than it is on a smart speaker or smartphone.

Microsoft hasn’t seemed serious about pushing Cortana in recent years, either. Cortana is still only available in 13 countries, while Amazon says Alexa is supported in many, many more countries. At the end of 2017, there were only 230 Cortana skills compared to 25,000 Alexa skills. Alexa now has over 50,000 skills, leaving Cortana in the dust.

Alexa Even Runs on Windows 10

Amazon’s Alexa is even beating Cortana on Windows. Many PC manufacturers have excitedly announced Alexa integration on their new PCs, and now there’s an official Alexa app any Windows 10 user can install to use Amazon’s voice assistant instead of Microsoft’s.

You can even integrate Alexa with Cortana, letting you say “Hey Cortana, open Alexa” to access Alexa on your Windows 10 PC.

And why wouldn’t you prefer Alexa—or even Google Assistant? The competing assistants can do a lot more than Cortana can. Sure, Cortana has some skills that let it control your smarthome, but nowhere near as many as Alexa and Google do. Even if you want a voice assistant on your Windows 10 PC, Cortana isn’t necessary.

Cortana Will Be a Productivity Tool

So. what exactly is Microsoft’s plan for Cortana? Let’s read some tea leaves.

As of October 11, 2018, Cortana is now part of Microsoft’s Office unit. It was previously part of the AI and Research unit. Petri’s Brad Sams reports that “Microsoft is significantly changing the way it thinks about and utilizes Cortana.” He thinks this is a signal that Microsoft will increasingly use Cortana as a productivity tool in its own software rather than building it up as a competitor to Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri.

Similarly, Windows Central’s Zac Bowden argues that Microsoft wants to “reposition” Cortana “as more of a productivity assistant rather than a ‘personal assistant.'” Microsoft is even experimenting with moving Cortana to the Action Center and offering a keyboard interface that lets you chat with Cortana by typing.

Sure enough, Microsoft has a new Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise that will let businesses create custom skills that integrate Cortana with their various HR, IT, helpdesk, and sales systems.

Features like Timeline, syncing notifications, and “pick up where you left off” across devices look like the future of Cortana on consumer (and business) Windows PCs. Microsoft is even attempting to split Windows search and Cortana, letting you search for files on your PC without Cortana getting in the way. It’s all about productivity—not mindlessly pushing a digital assistant.

Companies Can Build Assistants Based on Cortana

The future of Cortana also appears to be the enterprise. Microsoft offers a virtual assistant solution that developers can use to build their own virtual assistants and chatbots.

As Petri’s Brad Sams put it, Microsoft is letting companies build their own Cortana. The future of Cortana may not be as an exciting consumer product, but as a backbone for various companies’ custom enterprise solutions. Microsoft has always focused on enterprise software, a strategy that has made it one of the world’s most valuable companies.

For example, BMW is building its own “Intelligent Personal Assistant” for its cars. It’s using “Microsoft cloud and artificial intelligence tools” to build it, according to GeekWire. BMW’s assistant will integrate with both Alexa and Cortana. More companies will likely want to build their own assistants and chatbots, and Microsoft will be there with Cortana technology to help them.

That looks like the future of Cortana—as a convenient productivity workhorse or the underpinnings of another company’s custom digital assistant. Cortana won’t be a consumer-focused digital assistant featured on a popular smart speaker like the Amazon Echo or brilliant Google Home Hub smart display any time soon.

But there are some niches Cortana can fill, and Microsoft is smart to focus on its strengths.

Image Credit: ymgerman/Shutterstock, Harman Kardon, BMW

Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor in Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for nearly a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6 and Chicago's WGN-TV, and his work has been covered by news outlets like The New York Times and the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than 500 million times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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