Enlarge /. Pictured: A full set of Office 365 icons on the taskbar. Not shown for a good reason: "Cortana, play Old Town Road."
Microsoft today announced a significant shift in focus for its personal assistant, Cortana: it is getting out of the consumer gadget business and focusing on productivity. The new version of Cortana will be released with the next major update for Windows 10, which is expected to be released in April.
Microsoft significantly increases access to Cortana. Primarily, Cortana is no longer used for people who only use local accounts. Cortana access is only available to those who are signed in with school work domain accounts or Microsoft online accounts. Windows 10 users who only stick to local accounts are also unlucky.
The focus of the new Cortana will be on a productivity-oriented chat user interface. Users can review or set calendar items and tasks in natural English, check or create emails, set alarms and timers, open apps, and find people or files. She will also look for you on the Internet – of course with Bing – or make jokes.
Most of Cortana's consumer-oriented skills are said to get the ax. "Some consumer skills, including music, connected home, and third-party capabilities, are no longer available in the updated Cortana experience in Windows 10," wrote Andrew Shuman, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Cortana, in today's announcement.
Microsoft has made it clear to ZDNet that Cortana apps on iOS and Android can continue to control home devices and smart speakers. However, this may not be too helpful as the Cortana apps for Android and iOS themselves are quickly out of date.
Looking for a silver lining
We hope to see positive results for the drastic increase in focus on Cortana. A more powerful work tool is great, but we have something simpler in mind. The most common use of Cortana – to the point where many people don't know they are using "Cortana" at all – is the built-in search from the Start menu. And frankly, it's never been so great.
The quickest way to access the "Devices and Printers" applet in Control Panel in Windows 7 was to click "Start" and then type "dev". This means that the "Devices and Printers" applets are immediately displayed in the results. At that time, the user could simply press Enter to start it.
Since the integration of the Cortana start menu, there has been no way to access devices and printers directly. Instead, you must type "con" to open the Control Panel, open it, and then look for the "Devices and Printers" icon in it. This is far from the only start menu search failure, but it is one that has bitten us repeatedly and we would like to see it fixed.
We do not know that the local search function will experience improvements in the new Cortana. However, cutting out the gadget and music controls should free up a lot of developer hours to focus on more core features, and we hope local search will offer some of these benefits.