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There wasn’t that much Cortana news this week, but then again there never is. While Microsoft’s plans for Cortana haven’t changed, they are still incredibly puzzling. We know the company has somewhat lost interest in Cortana for consumers and is pushing Alexa instead, so discontinuing the Cortana bot in Skype this week was no surprise. We also know offerings like Microsoft Cognitive Services in the enterprise is key to the company’s strategy, so the Adobe news around voice AI this week is also in line. But Cortana’s overall future is murky, at best.

We asked Microsoft for comment about the Cortana bot in Skype. The company confirmed it was going away, and that other bots weren’t being discontinued, but didn’t elaborate on the reasoning.

“We are constantly evaluating and testing our products to ensure they offer the best and most productive experiences,” a Microsoft spokesperson told VentureBeat. “We are discontinuing the Cortana bot within Skype, but Cortana suggestions are still available. We remain committed to the future of what Cortana’s helpfulness can help our users achieve within Skype. Our goal with Cortana is to help people get things done quickly and with ease, regardless of where they are in their day, and we are excited for what is to come next.”

And yet everyone knows why. Cortana never took off with consumers. Aside from the Harmon Kardon Invoke, nobody wants to make a Cortana smart speaker — not even Microsoft. Alexa and Google Assistant dominate smart speakers, Google Assistant and Siri own the car (although Alexa is trying), and Google Assistant is winning on phones. So where does that leave Cortana?


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Confusing Cortana strategy

Microsoft doesn’t seem to care that Cortana has “lost” the AI assistant war. And yet, not only is it keeping Cortana alive in the consumer realm, it’s still pushing Cortana into new areas.

Cortana still exists on the Xbox, the platform from which the AI assistant got its name, but Microsoft refuses to say how many gamers actively use it. The next Windows 10 update will decouple Cortana from search — an admission that nobody wants Cortana in their desktop search experience — but will not remove it completely. And Microsoft continues to introduce new products with Cortana built in, like the Surface Headphones that debuted late last year.

This is what makes Microsoft’s strategy so confusing. Microsoft is curtailing Cortana offerings, reorganizing existing Cortana functionality, and launching Cortana products. Additionally, CEO Satya Nadella wants to see Cortana available in other places, like Google Assistant.

No clear Cortana use case

But Microsoft cannot seem to convince anyone why they would want that. What benefit is there to querying Cortana in Google Assistant? What can she do that Google Assistant can’t?

At Microsoft’s Build developers conference last year, Amazon and Microsoft showed off the Alexa and Cortana partnership. Presumably, we can look at this interaction to see what Cortana in Google Assistant would offer.

Cortana did nothing special in that demo. She was summoned via Alexa, answered a question about the presenter’s schedule, and sent an email. The same thing happened when the Alexa-Cortana public preview rolled out in August: Microsoft gave no clear use case. The pitch for Cortana can’t simply be that she has access to your work account.

Nobody needs or wants that.

Microsoft needs to make Cortana useful. She needs to stand out as the obvious option for something. If she can’t, she should return to the Halo universe.

My colleague Khari Johnson argues that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Even if Cortana goes away, Microsoft’s dominance in enterprise and productivity applications will remain. Companies will continue to leverage the intelligence underlying Cortana, via Microsoft Cognitive Services and other tools the company offers. And of course Microsoft will offer voice AI, automated transcription, and so on across its own enterprise products.

ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.

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