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Microsoft shifts gears with its 'Project Cortex' knowledge management service

Project Cortex is going to be delivered as a number of add-ons to existing Microsoft products. The change in strategy is the result of 'user feedback,' Microsoft execs say.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft has been working to deliver a knowledge-management service for several years. Last year, at its Ignite IT Pro conference, it officially announced plans for its latest iteration of such a service under the codename "Project Cortex." At this year's Ignite, Microsoft is announcing the revamp of Cortex, as well as its plans for the rollout of the first few Cortex components. 

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Up until this week, it seemed as if Project Cortex was going to be a single, centralized service that could be accessed inside existing Microsoft applications like Outlook, SharePoint, and more. Microsoft officials had been calling Cortex the first new major Microsoft 365 service since Microsoft Teams was launched in 2017. Before the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic hit, Microsoft's plan was to introduce Project Cortex in the early summer of 2020. But now, officials say that based on feedback from customers in the Cortex private preview, Cortex is going to roll out as a series of user-based add-ons rather than all at once as a single integrated service. 

In speaking with its dozens of private preview customers, "there's an understanding that this is a multiyear journey around what is knowledge and how knowledge is used," said Microsoft 365 General Manager Seth Patton. Cortex addresses "a broad set of scenarios with a wide set of use cases," but "the idea is still knowledge delivered through apps that you use every day," he added.

The first piece of Project Cortex that's coming to market is branded SharePoint Syntex. SharePoint Syntex is the AI content understanding and automation piece of Cortex, and uses machine teaching technology to sort, tag, route, and store content, such as expense reports and invoices, contracts, and various other kinds of documents.

SharePoint Syntex will be available as an add-on to any commercial Microsoft 365 plan as of Oct. 1. Microsoft officials declined to provide the price per user when I asked. Instead, a spokesperson reiterated it will be a user-based add-on and said: "Users are classified as anyone who needs to access a content center, along with the models and documents they store. All users will require a license."

Update (September 23):The pricing for the Syntex add-on is $5 per user per month (with volume discounts possible).

Microsoft is planning to deliver two additional Project Cortex components before the end of calendar 2020. These will be for topic organization and delivering knowledge via topic cards. Officials declined to say how these will be branded or licensed. 

SharePoint Syntex uses Azure's AI Builder and LUIS (Language Understanding) cognitive service and will integrate with Microsoft Search, Cortana, and Power Platform services. It builds on top of foundational SharePoint content services and will provide users with a content center, which will be a SharePoint site, which can be customized, for document understanding and analytics. Users to train models using just five pieces of content, officials said. Over time, Microsoft and various partners will be adding more sources of content via connectors to enable SharePoint Syntex to integrate with other kinds of applications, such as CRM systems.

Also: Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365) vs G Suite: Which is best for business?

Speaking of Microsoft Search, Microsoft officials are making some announcements around this service at Ignite this week, as well.

Microsoft Search is the company's unified Intranet search service which it launched a couple years ago. Microsoft is bringing the Microsoft Search service to Teams to enable users to find information on people, files, meetings, and messages in the context of a chat or channel. Microsoft also is going to bring Microsoft Search results to Windows desktop's search box by the end of this calendar year, which is part of Microsoft's original promise for Microsoft Search (to make it consistent across Office, SharePoint, Bing, Edge, and Windows).

And in a move that could be related to Project Cortex, Microsoft also is adding "AI-powered augmentation of user-profiles with skills and projects" to Microsoft Search, officials said, as well as a new Microsoft Search image search capability to enable users to find photos, logos and other images inside their organizations.

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