Cortana is hardly new technology. The product encompasses the Bing-search powered voice assistant that’s present in most Windows 10
devices. Microsoft originally positioned Cortana as a productivity enhancement meant to compete with Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google’s Assistant. For a time, Cortana was included in Microsoft’s smartphones, the Xbox One gaming console, the Microsoft Band wearable, and even had its own smart speaker.
But as the competition in that space became more intense, Microsoft eventually decided not to compete in the consumer voice assistant space. It downgraded Cortana from a standalone voice assistant into a skill and deferred to Amazon Alexa, which was shipping on new PCs.
However, Redmond has apparently not given up on Cortana entirely. At the Microsoft Ignite 2019 Conference in Orlando, Florida this week, the company announced that the Cortana voice assistant is now designated as the “artificial intelligence” (AI) on Microsoft Outlook Mobile for Android and iOS. Using voice recognition and text-to-speech technology on mobile devices is faster than typing, so Microsoft expects Cortana will serve as the digital concierge for Outlook Mobile users on iOS. Android users will need to wait until Spring 2020 for the feature to come to their devices. It’s also mainly a US play as Cortana for Outlook Mobile is currently limited to English language users in the US.
Hey Cortana, Play My Emails
The Play My Emails feature in Outlook for iOS uses Cortana to read out new emails and share changes to a user’s schedule for the day. While Microsoft’s descriptions don’t sound robust enough to qualify the product as a project management tool, it should aid in task management and even time tracking. It gives users a quick and hands-free way to catch up on their mail queue, and act on emails and calendar issues.
Microsoft sees ideal Cortana for Outlook Mobile scenarios as including front-line workers who are using their hands but need to access and respond to emails, or workers riding in vehicles who still need to access and respond to email without taking their hands off the wheel. Users can mark emails they have listened to as Read. They can also use voice commands such as Archive, Delete, Exit, Next, Pause, Previous, Reply, Resume and Skip, as well as Flag this Email, Unflag this Email, Mark as Read, Mark as Unread, and Send Feedback.
“Play My Emails is available for both commercial and consumer accounts, including Office 365, Outlook.com, and gmail.com,” a Microsoft spokesperson said. “Play My Emails Outlook for iOS started to roll out yesterday to iPhone users with location set to United States and language set to English.”
Users of Microsoft Outlook Mobile can reply to messages; responses are sent to all recipients by default. Cortana does not incorporate dictated punctuation into spoken messages, so speaking clearly and being in a noise-free environment will factor in the quality and accuracy of the transcriptions. Regional accents and confusing words may also trip up Cortana and capture inaccurate words and sentences.
Right now, it sounds as if this feature is workable for listening to emails while on the go. But for business-critical email responses, which need to be thoughtful and accurate, it would still make good sense to type these out manually to avoid errors. There’s no going back from sending a potentially embarrassing email response, so users should keep this in mind when they start using Cortana for Outlook Mobile.
The new male voice, which is being offered along with the classic female Cortana voice, has been upgraded to sound more natural and less robotic thanks to Neural Text-to-Speech technology. This can reportedly match patterns of stress and intonation in spoken language.
“Based on customer feedback, we decided to add an additional voice option. In recognition for users’ desire to personalize and not normalize,” the Microsoft spokesperson said. “We are electing to roll out this second voice option in conjunction with our neural voice technology, so not only are we providing the option to personalize but improving on the experience with technology that provides a more natural, conversational experience, with Cortana as your digital assistant.”
(Image credit: Microsoft)
Cortana Ensures Users Make Good on Their Promises
While its messaging capabilities sound useful, Microsoft intends Cortana for Outlook Mobile to go beyond simply reading back users’ emails. The company has designed the assistant so that it can help subscribers stay on schedule and help them fulfill commitments they’ve made in email. Using the Briefing Email feature, Cortana helps users prepare for their day and keep track of commitments made in email. With this feature, Cortana can send you a Briefing Email with the promises you made, along with a convenient way to mark them as “done.”
The Briefing Email also includes a summary of your meetings and lists the relevant documents for your day. While Play My Emails began rollling out this week (though it may take some weeks to reach all US customers), Microsoft says the Briefings feature will be available in preview mode for US customers in early 2020.
Scheduler, another Cortana for Outlook Mobile feature slated for early 2020, makes Cortana handle complex scheduling tasks. Users simply include Cortana in their meeting schedule on Outlook and the assistant will send participants various meeting times. Once a common time has been found, Cortana will finalize details and email all of the meeting’s participants.
That’s conveneient, but also expected, since voice assistants setting up meetings is nothing new. Cisco Webex uses Voicea’s EVA assistant to annotate meetings, send meeting notes and actionable items to participants, and even do real-time voice transcription. However, the fact that Cortana for Outlook Mobile has competition only validates Microsoft’s strategy (as the Statista chart below only seems to confirm).
(Image credit: Statista)
While a lot of the new features Microsoft has announced for Cortana at Microsoft Ignite 2019 are still very new and in need of refinement, the move certainly seems to be a sound strategic one on Microsoft’s part. With both Cortana and Office in its stable, the combination puts Microsoft in a unique position to succeed. The challenge will be in the perceived customer experience, and in Microsoft delivering and even expanding on these features going forward.
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