Microsoft pushes ahead with 'Office Now' work assistant

Microsoft is forging ahead with a work-assistant application which seemingly will be called "Office Now," which is designed to make performing work-related tasks simpler.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft officials have demonstrated that Cortana is going to get smarter about work in the not-so-distant future. But exactly how Cortana will be able to help users with tasks like finding files in OneDrive for Business has been a bit murky.

On May 22, more tidbits about "Office Now," an application which seems like it's the renamed "Work Assistant" app we first learned about in February 2015, leaked to the Web. "Walking Cat," also known as @h0x0d on Twitter, published some information about some of the functionality in Office Now. And Brad Sams published screen shots of the Office Now image assets, plus some additional details, about the Office Now application.

A quick recap re: Work Assistant. Back in February -- shortly after Microsoft founder Bill Gates said he was involved in some forthcoming "Personal Assistant" technology under development at Microsoft -- an internal test build of a new Microsoft app for Windows Phones called "Work Assistant" leaked out. (Microsoft has since pulled information from the Windows Phone Store about Work Assistant.)

Work Assistant, from what my contacts have said, is a helper app, designed to enable Cortana and Bing to do work-specific tasks, such as find a PowerPoint deck a user last accessed a week ago.

I've included in this post a couple of screen shots of Work Assistant shared with me a couple months back by a contact who asked not to be named.

The Work Assistant screen shots indicate that the app can handle file names, file locations, file types, "last access" dates, and supports commands including find, open, edit, send and share, among others. It enables users to perform natural-language queries, such as: "Send my planning deck to Kat Larsson," and "Share my formula bar spec with my current meeting."

Based on Sams' information, Office Now also will be able to help with scheduling meetings, join conference calls and plan for travel time -- tasks which Cortana also can currently handle.

It seems Office Now also will be able to allow users to "see insights about tomorrow," and to view a list of events that will require travel, according to @h0x0d's information. There will be "cards" that will show things such as missed calls. And there will be a "deep link" into the Revolve app that was developed by members of the Microsoft Garage that will provide "people insights," @h0x0d found.

(The use of the word "Cards" is something Office Now shares with Delve, Microsoft's Flipboard-like app for Office 365.)

Sams says he has heard that Office Now will be coming not just to Windows, but also iOS and Android. Given the fact one Microsoft executive said Cortana will be coming to iOS and Android at some point, it's not farfetched a helper app like Office Now would, as well.

One more seemingly related aside: There may be multiple "personal assistant" apps and services in the works from Microsoft.

I stumbled recently onto a Microsoft job posting for a "senior applied scientist in Bing engineering that mentioned "personal assistants" (plural). From that job posting:

"Are you interested in joining the team that has powered natural language understanding for Cortana and Bing and is now at the forefront of Personal Assistants, Productivity, Enterprise and Entertainment products for Microsoft? Our users crave a personal assistant that helps them to complete the tasks they have in mind, from managing their calendar, travels, and errands, to recommending them movies and restaurants, as well as having social chats with them. The personal assistant should understand the user intent and help him accomplish his tasks, no matter how he phrases them. The conversation with the personal assistant is often done with spoken natural language queries and with multi-steps dialog, unlike the traditional keyword search queries."

I've asked Microsoft officials for comment on Office Now. I'll update this post if and when I hear back.

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