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Microsoft repositions Cortana from an 'assistant' to an 'assistance' aide

Microsoft is shifting the way it is thinking about, positioning and building out Cortana. Cortana product chief Javier Soltero explains the new strategy.

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There's a subtle, but key difference between "assistant" and "assistance" (beyond the letters at the end of each word). Microsoft is looking to highlight that distinction with Cortana, its personal digital assistant that rivals Amazon's Alexa, Google's Assistant and Apple's Siri.

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Starting with Microsoft's Build 2018 developer conference this week, "we are starting to tell a different story" about Cortana, Microsoft Corporate Vice President of Cortana Javier Soltero told me during a meeting at the Washington State Convention Center this week.

Not long ago, Microsoft execs might have opted to rattle off a new set of features and/or OEM partners, a list of coming skills and an associated roadmap for Cortana at a show like Build. This week, Microsoft opted instead to show, not tell, what it it's planning for Cortana, Soltero said.

"We were all over the Day 1 keynote," Soltero said, "but the difference was that Cortana was embedded in a number of products and assistive in a useful and important way."

Cortana was front and center in a concept demo of how meetings could be made more intelligent on Day 1 of Build. Cortana helped facilitate a meeting, providing participant identification, automatic transcription and translation and more.

Microsoft and Amazon also provided on stage at day one of Build a first public demo of the Cortana-Alexa integration the two announced last summer. By saying "Alexa, open Cortana," users some time later this year will be able to use Cortana from an Alexa-powered device, and conversely, to summon Alexa from Windows 10 PCs via Cortana.

Microsoft is aiming to get users to think of Cortana not as a separate app or the voice inside a speaker. Instead, it's a built-in capability meant to provide assistance by completing tasks more easily and/or acting proactively on the behalf of users, Soltero said.

Soltero, who joined Microsoft in 2014 when his company, Acompli, was acquired by Microsoft, has shown he understands the need to be cross-platform and cross-scenario. He was heading up Outlook for Microsoft, and later Office, before he was made CVP for Cortana Product a couple months ago.

Microsoft has lost mindshare and marketshare to Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant. Soltero acknowledged that "this new market around ambient devices in the home has been "shaped differently when we expected." He said Microsoft recognized this market was potentially important "but didn't jump quickly on."

However, Soltero said, the home ambient device market is currently defined by where people are sitting -- their kitchens, living rooms, cars, etc. The experience of using a device like an Echo is built around providing proactive commands focused on completing a specific task that is built as a skill.

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(Speaking of skills, Microsoft has come to realize that its Cortana Skills Kit isn't the best way to get more add-ins developed. Microsoft seems to be moving more toward its Bot Framework as the preferred method to build apps for Cortana.)

Microsoft isn't simply going to focus only on work scenarios with Cortana. Instead, the company is "looking at things people do at home, work and in between," Soltero said. "We are looking for ways to help."

Microsoft is thinking about what it means to land a habit in one place and then move it to another at home/work or on-the-go, Soltero added.

This doesn't mean that Cortana as a persona has to go away, Soltero maintained.

"Cortana's not going away," he said when I asked. "There's nothing further from the truth. Our target is still to build Cortana as an assistant, too. Our intent is to remain coherent. But the result people want is the assistance. We think the one thing can carry the other," he said.

Moving forward with Cortana, Microsoft is going to make some choices about focusing on where it has some unique strengths. (Soltero said he calls this "opinionated product design.")

Cortana will be a multi-device experience that is about "assistance, not just convenience," he said.

Microsoft, because of its enterprise history, has a lot of knowledge about the importance of privacy and handling sensitive data. Sure, Alexa for Business -- Amazon's business-focused version of Alexa that is designed to perform many of the same tasks that Cortana is targeting -- can access your work files, but what about compliance situations, Soltero wondered aloud. Amazon's service might offer transcription, too, but how and where is the transcript securely stored, he asked. He maintained that Microsoft has spent years earning businesses' trust and that this could become a differentiator for Cortana as the market evolves.

Microsoft's aim is to insure that Cortana will be "situationally appropriate," Soltero said.

Microsoft has lots of other challenges with Cortana, including expanding availability of the platform to more markets worldwide. It's not clear the new positioning will do much, if anything, to dent Alexa and Google Assistant's rapid acceptance, but maybe those services won't end up being Cortana's real competition....