Microsoft is continuing its march toward refocusing its Cortana digital assistant on productivity scenarios. Today, July 31, Microsoft is going public with dates for phasing out more consumer-focused entertainment and smart-home features via a new Support Article on upcoming changes to Cortana.
Microsoft has been transitioning Cortana from a personal digital assistant similar to Alexa and Google Nest to more of an embedded productivity aide tied into Microsoft 365 for the past few years. And with hands-free/touch-free scenarios becoming more important as a result of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the importance of voice interaction to handle work tasks is only growing.
Today, Microsoft officials said that Microsoft will be ending support for all third-party Cortana skills on September 7. Microsoft never made much progress in getting developers to build skills for Cortana. Recently, Microsoft began making tools available for developers to use its Azure Bot Framework to create skills for Alexa instead. (And for those wondering, the partnership between Amazon and Microsoft for Alexa-Cortana integration is still on.)
In early 2021, Microsoft will be dropping support for the dedicated Cortana apps for iOS and Android. Microsoft is advising users who want to do tasks like managing email and calendar, join meetings and such by using the Cortana capability that is available in the Cortana app for Windows 10; Cortana integration in Outlook Mobile and "soon," Cortana voice assistance in the mobile Teams apps. Expect Cortana to be part of Microsoft's Project Cortex knowledge management service, due this fall, as well, given Cortana is pivoting around search -- and being able to search for something like "who is the SAS expert in my organization" would be useful.
For those still using their Cortana-powered Harman Kardon Invoke speakers, Microsoft also will be pulling the plug on the ability to use Cortana to control those devices as of January 2021.
Microsoft has been working with Harman Kardon on a transition plan to help users easily turn their Invoke speakers into Bluetooth-enabled devices via a firmware update, which will be delivered automatically to devices connected to wifi within six months of its release. It also will be providing affected users with a $50 gift Microsoft Store gift card for use by the owner of the latest U.S.-based Microsoft account used to set up the speaker.
(Update: For those wondering if the change will mean you can still play Spotify and other music services on the Invoke, the answer is "sort of." You will be able to play these services on your phone and then Bluetooth-connect the phone to the Invoke. Cortana won't control the Invoke at all.)
Microsoft also is removing support for the previous version of Cortana in the first version of Surface Headphones in early 2021. Both Surface Headphone versions, as well as Surface Earbuds will be able to use the version of Cortana that's integrated into Outlook Mobile to manage inboxes and use the Play My Emails feature. Microsoft will be providing affected Surface Headphone 1 users with a $25 Microsoft Store gift card.
Some will see these latest Cortana moves as yet more evidence that Microsoft is abandoning consumers. I would say that Microsoft is continuing to narrow its consumer focus (other than in gaming) to "prosumers," a k a consumers who want to do productivity tasks. As officials said in the Support note today, Microsoft hasn't seen much demand for Cortana in the entertainment/smart-home space, which isn't surprising, given the Microsoft of today is almost all about business.
I was thinking Microsoft might also announce today a name change for Cortana, given the service's near-exclusive productivity/M365 focus. But Microsoft is sticking with the Cortana name, presumably because officials believe there's still some brand value and because they want users to feel like the embedded productivity capabilities simulate the experience of having a personal assistant.