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In the age of Alexa and Siri, Cortana’s halo has grown dim

Nate Barrett/Digital Trends

Voice assistants are a great convenience. They make it easier than ever to control all our devices hands-free. A wide choice of assistants has risen over the past few years, including Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana.

The last of the bunch, Cortana, has seen better days.

Cortana found most of its use at home right inside the Windows 10 search box, easily accessible to everyone who uses a Windows computer. But Microsoft recently revealed that Cortana will be pulled out into its own icon on the taskbar with the upcoming April 2019 Update. Microsoft argues this will allow its developers to innovate on the feature independently, but we can’t help but wonder if the move signals a deeper truth about how successful the voice assistant has been. What went wrong?

Too much competition

The most important reason for Cortana’s failure begins at its inception. After making its way to the fledgling Windows Phone in 2014, Cortana went mainstream to the PC in 2015. By then, it already was too late. Windows Phone was a bust, and both Siri and Google Assistant had already been embedded in the minds of consumers. In subsequent years, Cortana moved to Android, iOS, and even Xbox to help increase its popularity, but even that still wasn’t enough. The numbers tell the story. Well, sort of.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Cortana was last noted in 2018 with a 150 million user base across 700 million Windows 10 devices. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, there are a couple of problems. First, we don’t know what exactly defines someone as a “Cortana user.” Because Cortana had been built right into the search bar in Windows 10, a user could be someone who accidentally clicks on the icon for all we know. Or maybe everyone who doesn’t explicitly disable Cortana is being considered a “user.”

There’s another problem, though. When you consider Windows 10’s massive install base, it really starts to paint a picture of how little Cortana was used. 78 percent of Windows 10 users ignored Cortana entirely. That changes the interpretation of those lofty millions.

The real death of Cortana began with the death of Windows Phone.

How’s the competition doing? Well, Amazon last reported it sold 100 million Alexa devices alone over the 2018 holidays and Google’s voice assistant was said to be powering more than 50 million smart home devices in 2019. The voice assistant market is simply tough, and nobody seems to be using poor, old, Cortana these days.

Tied to the PC

The real death of Cortana began with the death of Windows Phone. In 2019, a PC-based voice assistant just isn’t a strong enough proposition. Yes, you can find Cortana on Android or iOS, but with the lack of success of Windows Phone, Cortana still has its origins as the assistant linked to a PC. Cortana just never escaped those confines. Sure, you can find Cortana in the Harmon Kardon Invoke, as well as in the Johnson Controls GLAS Thermostat or the new Surface Headphones, but that’s about it. With the amount of homes that Echo and Google Home devices are already present in, it’s too little too late.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

These days, Microsoft even handed over Cortana’s exclusive reign over Windows 10. With Alexa now available in PCs, there’s even less need for Microsoft’s underdog assistant. Yes, they can work together, but it’s hard to imagine someone opting for Cortana when the popular Alexa is available, just one click away. Chances are they already own an Alexa-powered smart home device in their home, anyways.

In a world where we depend on voice assistants for such simple and fun tasks, it has almost become routine for most.

PC makers like Lenovo and Acer have happily pushed Cortana to the side, opting to pre-install a dedicated Alexa app on select PCs. Clearly, these companies wouldn’t do this and invest research and development into a new stand-alone voice assistant app if Cortana was truly very popular.

Where are all the features?

Part of the fun of a voice assistant is discovering what all it can do. The more features and skills it has, the more you feel you can rely on it. With Alexa, you can play games like Jeopardy, order pizza, or make orders directly on your Amazon account. With Siri or Google Assistant, you can control the lock on your door, the temperature in your house, and even the lighting in your office — all from your smartphone. In a world where we depend on voice assistants for these sorts of simple and fun tasks, it has almost become routine for most.

Amazon Echo Show 2 Review
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Some of these features were missing from Cortana for a while, and others are still missing today. Yes, it is compatible with one thermostat, and has roughly 115 skills, but that pales in comparison to the competition. Alexa has an almost infinite list of skills on the Amazon website, and that makes it blatant that developers don’t want to come up with skills set for Cortana because it just hasn’t caught on in the way Microsoft had hoped.

The future of Cortana

In mid-2018 there were some big internal changes at Microsoft, and Cortana just so happened to be involved. Longtime head of Cortana, Javier Soltero, left the company at a time when Cortana shifted over from its AI and Research organization to the teams that run Microsoft Office and Windows. Both of those teams happen to be focused more on productivity. Even that implicates Cortana is no longer being thought of as a stand-alone assistant and more of just a digital aide that can be used across Microsoft products.

Clearly, Cortana hasn’t been equipped to handle the job on her own. It’s an admission to the competition that Microsoft’s digital assistant lost the race.

While the future of Cortana is certainly up-in-the-air, one thing’s for sure: It won’t ever be the awesome AI assistant from Halo we always hoped it would be.

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Arif Bacchus
Arif Bacchus is a native New Yorker and a fan of all things technology. Arif works as a freelance writer at Digital Trends…
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