Microsoft to make email, calendar reminders smarter with Cortana

Microsoft is adding new types of proactive reminders to Cortana that tie directly into users' email and calendars.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft is making Cortana's reminders feature smarter by making them more proactive.


Cortana will be able to review and suggest new reminders based on emails that users send. Microsoft is using machine-learning techniques to identify languages in emails that suggest a time commitment. (Example: "I'll finish this by end of day.") Cortana will proactively ask users if they want to set reminders for a task based on that langauge.

Microsoft is adding a similar proactive-management feature to Cortana involving users' calendars. Cortana will be able to proactively notify users of events that fall outside their normal patterns, such as an after-business-hours meeting.

Officials said these new features will start rolling out first to Windows Insiders and then ultimately to all Windows 10 users. Update: The blog fine print indicates these features are for U.S. and U.K. users only (at least at this point).

I haven't heard whether these features are tied to Microsoft Outlook or if it will work with any email/calendar programs. I'm also not sure whether users can opt out if they don't want Cortana integrated with their mail and calendar. I've asked for comment about both of these questions.

Update: Users can turn off this email scanning feature, a Microsoft spokesperson said. The official statement: "The commitments update to the Cortana Reminders feature is a permissions based experience. As with any Cortana experience, you have a choice in how you want to use it and can turn off commitments as well as email access altogether."

Also: There's no definitive commitment or timeline for bringing these features to other platforms where Cortana is supported. The official statement: "We're always looking at ways to bring high-value experiences like this to other platforms but don't have a timeline."

Microsoft officials said last December that Microsoft would be making a smart-events-from-email feature available to users of any version of Outlook (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and Windows Phone) that connected to Office 365 and/or Outlook.com mailboxes. That new feature initially proactively would add airline flights to users' calendars if they so desired.

Microsoft officials said last year that events from email would start rolling out in early January 2016 to Office 365 First Release customers and those who have migrated to the new Outlook.com preview. (I, myself, and many I know still haven't been moved to the new outlook.com, even though it was announced close to a year ago.) Microsoft said this smart events feature would roll out more broadly in March 2016.

Microsoft execs didn't mention Cortana at all when describing the smart events Outlook feature. But I wonder if smart events may fit in, in some way, with the proactive email and calendar management functionality Microsoft announced today. I've asked for clarification and will update this post if and when I hear back.

Update No. 2 (January 26): Interestingly, there is no connection between the work the Outlook and the Cortana/Windows teams are both doing in this proactive-reminder space, a spokesperson said. The spokesperson also said the Cortana proactive notifications feature will work with email systems beyond Microsoft's own (with users' permissions). No specifics on which email systems will be compatible.

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