Will Cortana go the way of Windows Phone?

The signs all suggest that Microsoft is going to cut its losses in the digital assistant market. Smart move.

windows phone 81 cortana main screen nokia lumia icon april 2014
Michael Homnick

“Say goodbye, Cortana.”

That might be what Microsoft is contemplating saying to its struggling digital assistant. Cortana, or at least Cortana as we know it today, could end up on the Microsoft scrap pile, next to Windows Phone. To which I say, “Good for you, Microsoft. You just might be starting to learn.”

Cortana, as I said, has been struggling. It hasn’t reached the mobile ubiquity of Apple’s assistant, Siri, or made any headway into the booming market for smart speakers as have Amazon’s Echo and Dot and Google Home. And it likely never will.

How far behind is Cortana? Reports this summer said that Amazon had sold 50 million smart speakers. Google’s smart speaker sales have been surging as well. In fact, the analyst firm Canalys found that Google’s smart speakers outsold Amazon’s for the first time in the first quarter of 2018, selling 3.2 million units to Amazon’s 2.5 million. Cortana? Sales of the only smart speaker with Cortana built into it, the Harman Kardon Invoke, were too small to measure. And although Apple is essentially a no-show in the smart speaker market, Siri is so popular on Apple’s mobile devices it’s essentially become a cultural touchstone.

If all that doesn’t convince you that Cortana has no future, maybe this will: Starting on Nov. 16, the Amazon Dot and Echo smart speakers were listed for sale in the Microsoft Store. True, on Nov. 18, links to those listings no longer worked. But that’s likely a small glitch, because Amazon and Microsoft have made a deal to get Cortana and Alexa, the brains behind Amazon’s smart speakers, to cooperate.

There’s more evidence about Cortana’s likely fate. Javier Soltero, a rising star at Microsoft who has been in charge of Cortana development, announced earlier this month he was leaving Microsoft. That didn’t come as a great surprise to Microsoft watchers, though. A few weeks before Soltero’s announcement, another important cog in the Cortana team departed as well. Eleven-year Microsoft veteran Samuel Moreau, who had been partner design director of Cortana and artificial intelligence, left to become vice president of global design and user experience for the Expedia Group.

They both left in the wake of a Microsoft reorganization that appears to have downgraded Cortana’s importance. Cortana was moved from the AI and Research Division into the Experiences & Users team. That may sound like the usual shuffling of chairs that is so common at big companies like Microsoft. But it’s more than that. It probably signals the end of Cortana as a cutting-edge technology and standalone digital assistant. Instead, Cortana will likely become a less visible technology that provides assistance to other Microsoft products behind the scenes, instead of a highly visible branded product.

What does that mean in practice? A look at a deal between Microsoft and Amazon about how Cortana and Alexa will work together provides some clues. In August 2017 the companies announced their deal. The companies agreed that you could open up Alexa from Cortana, and vice versa, by saying “Alexa, open Cortana” or “Cortana, open Alexa,” and then issuing a voice command for the appropriate digital assistant.

That may sound like a deal between equals, but it’s not. Smart speakers do their magic using what are called “skills,” which are essentially voice applications for things like playing music, controlling a smart home, playing games, interfacing with business and productivity applications, and much more. The effectiveness of a smart speaker and digital assistant depends entirely on the variety and usefulness of those skills. Amazon announced via a blog on Sept. 1 that Alexa had more than 50,000 skills. Microsoft hasn’t recently divulged how many skills Cortana has, but at the end of 2017, it had only 230 of them. (Alexa at that time had 25,000.) Considering that so few people have purchased Cortana speakers, it’s likely that Cortana still has few skills, because developers can’t make much money creating skills for a tiny market segment.

What ultimately does that mean for Cortana? In essence, when it comes to smart speakers, Cortana will likely become merely one Alexa skill among tens of thousands of others. The single manufacturer of Cortana speakers, Harman Kardon, will probably leave the market. Beyond that, Cortana will probably live behind the scenes in Windows, offering help to people when they do things like trying to find a convenient time to schedule meetings and other kinds of productivity tasks.

But here’s the thing about all this bad Cortana news. Microsoft’s willingness to downgrade Cortana instead of getting into a long-term, multibillion-dollar losing war against Amazon, Google and Apple in the digital assistant business shows the company has learned from the past. The Windows Phone fiasco, in which Microsoft threw countless billions of dollars down a rathole and wasted the precious time of thousands of developers, might have taught the company something. It’s finally shed the arrogance of believing it can win every fight by spending billions of dollars and using Windows as a battering ram. So saying goodbye to the current iteration of Cortana is a good thing for the company, not a bad one.

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