Microsoft starts embedding Cortana in Outlook Mobile

Starting with Outlook on iOS, Cortana can play users' emails, help with calendar scheduling and more.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor
Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft is continuing to pivot Cortana from a typical digital assistant to more of a productivity aide. At Ignite this week, the company unveiled some of the new Cortana features it is starting to turn on for users, starting with those with Outlook mobile on iOS devices in the United States. These features will come to Android device users in the U.S. in the spring of 2020.

Microsoft's plan is to try to make Cortana an integrated part of a number of Microsoft apps and services, and will turn it on by default.

Microsoft is starting to roll out a Cortana-powered Play My Emails service in Outlook on iOS. Cortana can read aloud new emails in curated way. This means Cortana will not simply read emails in a rote manner, including header and footer information. Because Cortana is integrated with the Microsoft Graph centralized application programming interface, it will be able to take advantage of knowledge about users' contacts, documents, calendars and more, said Andrew Shuman, Microsoft's Vice President of Product for Cortana.

Microsoft is adding a masculine voice option for Cortana as of this week. (It's available as a setting in Outlook for iOS as part of Play My Emails.) Microsoft also says the masculine and traditional feminine voices now use Neural Text-to-Speech, which makes them sound more natural.

Microsoft did debut the ability for Cortana to read emails aloud for the Harmon Kardon speaker a year ago. But this capability was linked to consumer Outlook mail, not business mail, said Shuman. Microsoft's first priority these days is to integrate Cortana with business services and apps. That's why Microsoft is touting that Cortana has met requirements set in the O365 section of the Microsoft Trust Center and Online Services firms.
Microsoft also announced at Ignite that Scheduler (the service formerly known as Calendar.help) is available in preview in Outlook. This service helps users schedule meetings by coordinating with participants using Cortana.

Starting next month, Microsoft also will offer users the option of receiving a daily briefing email which will include a summary of upcoming meetings, relevant documents for the day and reminders to follow up on commitments made in email. I've had an older version of the Cortana commitments feature for some time working in my Outlook business email and I have not found it to be useful, but I know a number of users who swear by it.

At its Build conference this year, Microsoft said it is working on making Cortana work in "turn-by-turn" way, which is more of a natural way of interacting with an assistant. That work, which makes use of technology that Microsoft acquired as part of its Semantic Machines purchase, is still a work in progress, Shuman said.

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