Microsoft Cortana Almost Debuted as Bingo or Alyx
Microsoft transformed Cortana from a consumer voice assistant to a business efficiency tool over the last few years. Still, Cortana might have had a very different history if it were named Alyx or Bingo. Those were two near-contenders for the voice AI’s name, according to former Microsoft product manager Sandeep Paruchuri as shared in the latest Big Bets newsletter.
Microsoft developers started working on a voice assistant in 2011 after seeing what Siri could and couldn’t do. Paruchuri points to the Cortana AI assistant in the Halo game series as the inspiration for coming up with a Microsoft voice assistant, hence the name. At first, Cortana was just the internal code name. When the release date crept closer, the marketing team at Microsoft wanted to promote the AI’s humor and personality to more than just video game fans. That meant no more Cortana, at least at first.
“Their plan for a public name was Alyx, because it was so pronounceable – Cortana had always been intended as a code name, not a public-facing name,” Paruchuri explained. “But the name Cortana leaked (someone discovered the string in a beta product) and the bloggersphere went nuts. More than a million people signed a petition demanding that they ship it with the name Cortana.”
Calling the voice assistant Alyx just a couple of years before Amazon introduced Alexa to the world suggests that the people behind these names had reached similar conclusions about branding voice AI. Had Microsoft gone that direction, Jeff Bezos and his team might have gone with a very different alternative name. That wasn’t the end of the Cortana naming controversy, however. Then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer wanted to change the name to align with other Microsoft branding and call the voice assistant Bingo as a reference to the Bing search engine. Satya Nadella took the reins from Ballmer before the AI release, however, and his support of the original idea made sure that Bingo was not Cortana’s name-o.
Time constraints were apparently an ongoing issue for Cortana, according to Paruchuri. The company even recorded with Halo’s Cortana voice actor, Jen Taylor, to produce a custom voice, only to see it fall out of the final product. Paruchuri describes a product that started failing almost as soon as it came out, with diminishing returns on features and use. Whether calling Cortana Alyx or Bingo might have helped is hard to say, but it was Alexa ending its integration with Cortana this year, not the other way around.
The launch of the Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise in 2018 marked the true beginning of the change for Cortana. The Cortana app shut down early this year, but Microsoft has fully integrated Cortana into Outlook, Microsoft 365, and the Teams platform. Cortana hasn’t totally vanished from devices either, though it’s pretty much done with smart speakers. The voice assistant runs the new Microsoft Surface Hub and Lenovo ThinkSmart View touchscreen computers. Though specialized around using Teams, the devices share similarities with Microsoft’s latest laptops, which can perform as voice-controlled smart displays.