Microsoft Cortana App Will Shut Down in 2021 and Cortana Skills RIP in a Few Weeks
Microsoft continued its process of refocusing Cortana as an Office 365 assistant by revealing that the Cortana app will cease to function in early 2021 and the consumer-focused Cortana Skills will be shut down in September 2020. This is despite an update to the Cortana consumer app that came out just in the last 30 days. The announcement came via an update to a Microsoft support page.
Refocusing on Enterprise
The latest information comes after the announcement in November 2019 that began the process of shutting down the general-purpose consumer version of the Cortana app in all markets other than the U.S. That action followed Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s comments reported by The Verge in January 2019 that “Cortana needs to be that skill for anybody who’s a Microsoft 365 subscriber.” Voicebot actually recommended and predicted this eventuality in 2016 and 2017. The voice platform wars framework, also known as the GOWN voice assistant strategy framework, actually shows that Microsoft has little to lose with this move and potentially a great deal to gain by focusing on B2B enterprise services and abandoning B2C features that put it in competition with Amazon, Apple, and Google.
Microsoft’s Cortana services that are being shut down are the remaining vestiges of its B2C offering. The Harman Kardon Invoke, the only smart speaker Cortana ever supported in English, will get a firmware upgrade which will remove Cortana access but enable the device to connect via Bluetooth to mobile devices for audio playback. Surface Headphones and Surface Earbuds will have access to the Cortana business applications but no longer will have the consumer-oriented services available.
As Vociebot reported in October 2019, there isn’t likely to be a strong rationale for surface earbuds if they are strictly for work. Most users will prefer a dual-purpose audio option that supports both consumer and business needs. But Microsoft, at least for now, is planning on a future for them as business devices. This may be based on an assessment that businesses will purchase them in bulk for users. Don’t count on it.
Invoke smart speaker users can also request a $50 gift certificate to the Microsoft store for their troubles. However, there is a catch. If you haven’t used the device in the past 12 months you are not eligible. I know of at least one device owner that has not used his since around the time Nadella said the strategy had shifted. That was 18 months ago.
Microsoft Has a Bright Future in Voice and Conversational AI
In some ways, this news obscures the fact that Cortana has a lot of potential to become a leader in voice and conversational AI. Cortana as an assistant for Office 365 is just one element of the company’s strategy. Azure Bot Services and Microsoft Bot Framework are among the most popular tools for chatbot development, integrating chatbot and voice assistant backends to a common set of services, and for building custom assistants. Voicebot Podcast Ep 153 includes an extended conversation with BBC’s Andy Webb who goes into detail about the organization’s selection and configuration of Microsoft as its technical foundation for the Beeb custom voice assistant. A good example in the chatbot space is Grace, the assistant created on Microsoft technology by Providence St. Joseph Health.
Custom assistants are a rapidly growing segment of voice AI based solutions and Microsoft has some early momentum as a popular tech stack for enterprises across industries. Cortana is actually a pretty good general-purpose voice assistant for consumers but it is a small part of Microsoft’s voice and conversation AI portfolio. Microsoft very well could be a big winner in this market whether or not anyone remembers Cortana’s name.