What is Cortana?

Cortana is an intelligent personal assistant (or virtual assistant) developed by Microsoft released in 2014. Cortana was designed to run on Windows’ operating system and was initially part of Windows PCs and smartphones. Microsoft first introduced the assistant as a female, named after a video game character. In Halo, the fictional AI character Cortana provides players with the backstory and tactical information needed to play. Jen Taylor, the voice actress of Halo’s Cortana character, also serves as the voice of the digital assistant. Microsoft also offers a masculine voice that users can choose.

Cortana history and development

Cortana launched in 2014, initially on Windows phones and computers. The virtual assistant stored a notebook with helpful information about its user, though the computer or mobile user could manage those details. It gathered intelligence about a user to then be more helpful in both productivity tasks and small life details.

Starting in 2015, Cortana became unavailable for mobile devices, making it less functional than the other top virtual assistants. One smart speaker, the Harman Kardon Invoke, was eventually added to Cortana’s list of supported devices, but the addition did little to make Cortana competitive with other virtual assistants. Now, Cortana is again available for desktop and mobile. Microsoft made plans to cut its mobile application in early 2021, though. The Cortana app will then no longer be available from the App Store or Google Play. This will limit Cortana’s availability on smartphones.

In late 2019, Microsoft announced plans to scale back Cortana’s capabilities. It’s now geared almost exclusively toward productivity. The most recent operating system on which Cortana currently runs is Windows 10.

Cortana and its rivals

Cortana began as a clear compatriot and competitor to Siri and what was then Google Now. It featured similar functions, such as playing music on command. Amazon’s Alexa released later in 2014.

Google Assistant, the replacement of Google Now, is very responsive. It listens comparatively well to users’ requests and ranks on the higher end of voice recognition. In contrast, research found that Cortana struggled more than Google Assistant to comprehend voice commands while background noise was happening. Google Assistant is available on the widest range of devices because it’s tied to a web server and software rather than one operating system.

Amazon Alexa connects to many home devices, such as door locks, lights, TVs, and the Echo Dot. Though Alexa has not always worked well with non-Amazon tech in the past, she shows promise. Alexa is cloud-based, and Amazon offers the platform for businesses and hotels, too, providing added features for companies.

Apple’s Siri is best known for Apple products. She is available for a few other devices, however. Siri was introduced in 2011 and also features strong language recognition. She’s also the most likely to have personality and respond and react with humor.

Though Cortana initially seemed to be intentional competition for these three other virtual assistants, Microsoft has narrowed its focus for Cortana, shaping it to be office-oriented. Now, the main difference between Cortana and these other three is that Google Assistant, Siri, and Alexa are all very consumer-oriented. They integrate with plenty of third-party apps and allow users to make a plethora of home and entertainment requests. Microsoft has limited Cortana’s capabilities so that it is no longer available for streaming videos or playing music.

It’s worth noting that Cortana doesn’t make it into some analyses of the top virtual assistants; Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri are widely considered the best three.

Using Cortana

To invoke Cortana, users simply say “Hey, Cortana” and make a command or request, like “pull up my calendar” or “read my email from Joe.” Speaking to a PC pulls up Cortana’s window.

Cortana searches Bing, Microsoft’s browser, by default. Microsoft doesn’t like Cortana to use other search engines, preferring that traffic go to their own. However, there are workarounds that users employ to reroute Cortana requests to a different browser. Some users may want their searches completed through Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. Users can download third-party applications that force Cortana to use Chrome or another browser.

To enable Cortana for Microsoft Teams, first toggle Cortana in your device. You can then enable Cortana within a meeting.

Disabling Cortana on a computer is possible, but the assistant is part of Windows’ system, and the disabling process for a PC is technical. It requires reconfiguring Cortana’s section of the computer’s registry, which is both tricky and dangerous. Doing this wrong can damage the computer.

Past and current features of Cortana

In mid-2020, Microsoft significantly scaled down Cortana’s features. Originally, Cortana seemed to be a clear competitor for Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Siri. But now, Cortana will mainly serve professionals in their work tasks. It already had some weaknesses compared to its top competitors, but Microsoft removed most of its consumer-facing features (like playing music or other things that users typically do for entertainment or at home).

Microsoft has integrated Cortana into its Teams application, which features both messaging and video conferencing. Cortana also provides more security than its counterparts because Microsoft outfits it similarly to its other business applications. Though the assistant’s features are more limited, it has the opportunity to carve out a new space in intelligent technology because it does what the other three aren’t yet primed to do.

Past features

  • Cortana’s Notebook stored helpful data such as contact information. Users had control over the information the Notebook kept, being able to add or delete data they thought was important or unnecessary
  • Older versions of Cortana predicted sporting events, sometimes with accuracy.
  • Cortana could play music from up to three streaming services.
  • Cortana could play a TV show or movie from a connected streaming service.

Current features

Currently Cortana:

  • Connects to other Microsoft applications, such as Outlook and Microsoft Office 365
  • Schedules meetings for colleagues if copied as a receiver in the email list. Cortana locates open availability for all listed users based on their calendars
  • Integrates with Google Calendar for added scheduling flexibility
  • Reads emails aloud while users are on the go and allows users to send and respond to emails
  • Tracks airline flights
  • Opens apps by voice command
  • Works with Teams, allowing users to join meetings, request information, send documents to coworkers, or send messages with vocal commands

For both past and present versions of Cortana, users have noticed limited voice recognition. Some commands require an exact wording and will refuse to complete a search otherwise. Pulling up a TV show through a streaming service, when Cortana offered that feature, required users to say an exact phrase and wasn’t an intuitive process.

The future of Cortana

As Microsoft further develops Cortana’s artificial intelligence capabilities, professionals will see how it helps them manage their work applications and productivity. This seems to be Cortana’s best arena to shine, since it’s no longer available for the majority of features for which users typically want a virtual assistant. But technology has changed since Microsoft launched Cortana. Years ago, virtual assistants were mainly used for their consumer-oriented tasks, like running home smart devices and connecting to streaming services. But after COVID-19 forced many employees into a remote work setting, virtual assistance within workplaces and work applications has become desirable, too.

Cortana’s advantage here is that, because it’s considered Microsoft’s work assistant rather than home or entertainment AI, it benefits from the same security features that Microsoft implements in its other business applications. It also features strong AI capabilities. Cortana has promise as an intelligent business assistant; its effectiveness will likely become more visible once it’s had more time to develop as an enterprise application.

UPDATED: This article was updated April 6, 2021 by Web Webster.

 

 

Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal is a freelance business and technology writer covering Internet technologies and online business since the late '90s.

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