On the occasion of the Build 2020 conference, Cortana was not mentioned. But Microsoft does not forget it and prefers to perfect it to attack the business world.
Microsoft’s Build conference this week didn’t feature any Cortana announcements. Disturbing, isn’t it… Considered a flagship product when Windows 10 was launched, has Cortana become obsolete? Still, the intelligence at the heart of Cortana is a priority for Microsoft. But it looks like there’s Cortana on one side, and the AI on the other, and the two are separate and distinct. This is also somewhat reflected in the absence of Cortana from this build and the underlying issues distinct from Cortana herself. To put it simply, it’s a bit of a mess.
Compared to the old built-in version, the Windows 10 Cortana app has lost several features. (Credit: Mark Hachman/IDG)
Victim of the pandemic?
During the development of the Windows 10 May 2020 Update, Microsoft made a difficult decision: to separate Cortana from the Windows shell and turn the assistant into an application. In the test carried out by our colleagues, they wrote that this choice had degraded Cortana. The assistant partially lost its ability to perform calculations (the function has since been restored) and it was deprived of certain conversational elements, in particular its activation by the voice command “Hey Cortana”. And then the pandemic arrived. Andrew Shuman, Microsoft vice president in charge of Cortana, explained that Cortana was absent from the build largely because the Windows 10 May 2020 release was itself still in flux.
But the forced shutdown has also blocked access to hardware testing facilities, like Building 88, home to the famous “world’s quietest” anechoic chamber, which Microsoft reportedly spent $1.5 million on. of dollars. China has also been shut down, and Microsoft’s production lines halted. “This situation has strained our testing resources and our ability to test hardware with the latest versions of Windows,” Shuman explained in a Teams communication. “So the company focused its efforts where it could: on developers, more than ever before,” Shuman said. “The question of ‘end users’ and future Cortana skills will come later,” he added.
An orientation towards companies on stand-by
Alright, that explains Cortana’s absence from Build 2020. But we’re also waiting for an explanation of Cortana’s future. And it all sounds pretty murky. If science fiction is to be believed, humans want to interact with artificial intelligence through some sort of personality, even if it looks as mundane as the “computer” in Star Trek. Quickly, a veritable team of writers came up with tailor-made answers for Cortana. However, currently the “Hey Cortana” voice command has been disabled, and Microsoft’s assistant can only be invoked by pressing a key. Andrew Shuman admits that’s not ideal. “The voice is not at the expected level,” Mr. Shuman said. “And voice control is disabled by default in early versions. We know Windows deployment takes time, so we didn’t want to delay it. But we need to find a quick solution to restore activation by voice command”.
Back when Cortana was the basis of Windows Mobile. Another era. (Credit: Microsoft)
But when asked what Cortana might look like, Mr. Shuman does not answer. From Azure to Office, via Windows and even Cortana for enterprises, Microsoft believes that business intelligence comes before conversational assistance, useful, futile or entertaining. Andrew Shuman prefers to talk about features like Outlook’s Play My Email, which relies on AI to read emails and sort them by importance. “In terms of usage and fan engagement, you should only promise what you can actually deliver,” Shuman said. “I mean, Alexa is great for setting a timer, great for managing your playlists or turning off the lights. We need something equivalent in the business productivity space… Cortana will be great for launching apps, and excellent for performing simple calculations. It will soon be perfect for launching websites (we’re not there yet, but…). It’s what people do on Windows all day. We must therefore stick to their uses. And in a way, earn the right to go further”.
A focus on business and AI
Mr. Shuman’s plans for Cortana don’t seem particularly ambitious. On the other hand, Microsoft has done well to dive into niche applications and meet those needs. That’s the other side of Cortana: the intelligence that Microsoft strives to bring into working life. In 2016, just months after learning about Cortana’s customization efforts, Harry Shum, Microsoft’s former head of AI, told our colleagues at PCWorld that the firm was going full throttle in all directions. artificial intelligence. Javier Soltero, Cortana’s former boss, had the same goal. It’s this belief in pervasive AI that has led to Play My Emails for Android and iOS, which uses artificial intelligence to catch up on emails, interacting with individual messages, all by voice.
Microsoft used to offer a voice-only interface, via Harman/Kardon Invoke, which quietly left the scene, no doubt due to poor sales. “With Invoke, the only reliable practice was playing music,” Shuman said. And frankly, it didn’t go beyond “playing such an artist” or “playing such a genre”, because people don’t quite remember the title of a song or the name of an album or things like that. kind. Play My Emails already gets a lot of feature requests that Shuman says he never thought of, such as “read all emails from John,” or from another user. Microsoft is also working on prioritizing emails according to their importance. “If you get five emails from your boss, at least one of them is probably important.” Likewise, Mr. Shuman considers Meeting Insights a success. This other Outlook feature relies on AI to select emails and documents identified as relevant for a meeting.
But ultimately, Mr. Shuman returns to the notion of a true corporate assistant. Initiatives like Project Cortex, for example, could allow Cortana to extract the resume a candidate emailed, but also understand its content well enough to be able to tell what course they took. Microsoft is working to complete its “application hub”: the firm has 1 billion Windows 10 users, more than 100 million Outlook users, and 75 million active daily users of Teams. Eventually, it looks like Cortana could once again provide a daily briefing, as it did before.
In addition to reading incoming emails, Cortana can tell how long they’ve been in a user’s inbox and provide additional information about each message. (Credit: Microsoft)
“It’s not a digital assistant that asks you anything,” Shuman said of Cortana. “No, he has your back. It will inform you about the next step. It’s going to help you find things you’re struggling to find, or it’s going to take you deep into the Windows experiences we love and use every day. I think that’s the kind of functionality Cortana will deliver: push the button and see what’s next, push the button and find out what you need to do.”