Cortana was supposed to be the differentiator for Windows Phone. 5 years ago, before Alexa had wormed her way into kitchens of millions of people and forced Google to respond with their range of devices, Siri and Cortana were the assistants in town. When Windows Phone carked it, Cortana transferred her attention to Windows 10, though there have been a few redesigns after feedback from users, such as preferring to have the search dialog shorn of Cortana-ness.
In latest news, rumours have surfaced of some kind of Microsoft speaker to be announced, though it’s purely a design patent rather than any details of what it might do – Cortana? Or just a companion device for making Teams calls? Time will tell. The same source unveiled a patent for a Roundtable type device at the same time last year – ahead of the autumn Surface launch event – and nothing seems to have come of that yet.
The much-trumpeted GLAS home thermostat (competing with Nest, basically) has dropped Cortana from the device, and the Cortana-powered Harman Kardon Invoke speaker (which, by all accounts, is a really good speaker) has sunk beneath the waves following a fire sale to get rid of stock. Cortana is reportedly disappearing from Xbox too, though a wider speech strategy is in place so she won’t go too far.
Cortana has been repositioned from being a consumer service or device, to a series of services that add value by integrating with your productivity applications and services. Additionally, efforts have gone into making speech/AI assistants interoperable.
In a recent Windows 10 build pushed to Insiders, Cortana is getting a new look – again – and will eventually roll out around the world, rather than be limited to a few locations as it had been previously.
If you’re on the insider program for Windows 10 and using a UK language machine, you may find that the new Cortana app doesn’t want to talk to you, unless you set English (United States) as your Windows Display language.
Also click on each entry in the Preferred languages list, and make sure you have all the speech and proof-reading features installed.
The original vision of Cortana’s usefulness is evolving so that when you enable the service, it now searches your email and calendars on a variety of sources (Office 365, Gmail etc) and will remind you when you say things in email (eg I’ll give you a call on Tuesday) – it’s vaguely spooky when you first start to use it, but after a while proves to be really useful.
As To Do and the Microsoft Launcher continue to improve and integrate, the original vision of Cortana might well come back to being more than a gimmick to ask for directions or the current weather – a genuinely personal assistant that will help you organise your life and get more stuff done.
By asking Cortana to remind you of something, she’ll add it to your Outlook Tasks and To-Do reminders – if you’re set up that way – and you can manage lists within the To-Do app itself, or access the same To-Do Lists or Reminders from within the Cortana Notebook.
You don’t even need to go into the Cortana UI (or say “Hey Cortana”) to add things to be reminded – any app that implements Share functionality, like the Edge browser’s Share page toolbar command – will let you target Cortana Reminders.
You can set a reminder time, which will then sync to Outlook Tasks and on to To-Do, if you’ve set up Office 365 or Outlook.com integration, and will trigger a reminder using those mechanisms (get ready for toast overload…) Alternatively, get Cortana to ping you when you arrive at a place or next talk with a known contact.
Cortana’s past tells a good story, and her future is changing somewhat – after deciding to stop positioning her as a potential competitor to Amazon Alexa or Google assistants, a forthcoming release of Windows 10 will break the bond between Windows Search & Cortana, and the voice prompts from Cortana during Windows Setup will be silenced when installing a non-Home version of Windows too.
Remember the time when talking to a computer seemed like science fiction?
If you’re an Amazon Echo or Sonos One* user, you’ll already be familiar with barking orders at an inanimate object. If you’re tired of shouting ALEXA… ALEXA!!!, then you can even change the “Wake Word” on the Amazon devices – but not yet others – so you can say other things instead. Handy if your daughter or your dog is called Alexa.
In the Alexa app on your phone, go to Settings, look under the list of devices and if you select an Echo device of some sort, then you’ll find a Wake Word option fairly far down the list. This lets you choose something else, though not yet at the level when you could make up your own wake word…
Anyway, who can pass up the opportunity to pretend to be Mr Scott?
Anyway, recent announcements saw the preview of Cortana joining hands with Alexa and allowing access both from Windows 10 PCs to (some) Alexa functionality, and US-based Amazon users can access Cortana stuff through Alexa-enabled devices.
On your PC, you may need to check your Cortana settings (just press WindowsKey and start typing Cortana to see the settings) to either enable the Hey Cortana key phrase, or press WindowsKey+C as a shortcut, then speak.
Voice-searching on the PC using Cortana can be a pretty handy thing to do, as there are plenty of phrases that will give you a direct response rather than take you to a website. It’s quicker to press the WindowsKey+C option than to say “Hey Cortana”, and you could ask stuff like M-S-F-T, what’s the time in New York, what’s the news, what’s the weather, convert pound to dollar and so on.
You’ll also need to grant permission to share info between the two services, and now be able to do things like add items to your Amazon shopping list from within the Cortana UI, or in the reverse, query your Office 365 calendar from your Echo smart speaker.
YMMV at the moment, but it’ll surely get more integrated in time. Right now, you can’t stream music through Alexa to the PC (or, it seems, control smart home devices that work through Alexa, though that could be a regional thing for the moment) – and if you’ve a UK-based Amazon account, you can’t add the Cortana Skill to your Alexa account, so there’s no option of querying Cortana from the Echo, yet. US users can, though.
Still, Normal People don’t have electronics listening to everything they say… so what if a few nerds need to put up with some temporary friction from having two competing assistants try to work together? Click-Over-bzzzt.
This week has seen the Microsoft developer conference, called //build/ in its current guise, take place in “Cloud City”, Seattle (not so-called because it rains all the time – in fact, it rains less than in Miami. Yeah, right). Every major tech company has a developer conference, usually a sold-out nerdfest where the (mostly) faithful gather to hear what’s coming down the line, so they know what to go and build themselves.
Apple has its WWDC in California every year (for a long time, in San Francisco), and at its peak was a quasi-religious experience for the faithful. Other similar keynotes sometimes caused deep soul searching and gnashing of teeth.
The Microsoft one used to be the PDC, until the upcoming launch of Windows 8 meant it was time to try to win the hearts & minds of app developers, so //build/ became rooted in California in the hope that the groovy kids would build their apps on Windows and Windows Phone. Now that ship has largely sailed, it’s gone back up to the Pacific North West, with the focus more on other areas.
Moving on from the device-and-app-centric view that prevailed a few years back (whilst announcing a new way of bridging the user experience between multiple platforms of devices), Build has embraced the cloud & intelligent edge vision which cleverly repositions a lot of enabling technologies behind services like Cortana (speech recognition, cognitive/natural language understanding etc) and vision-based products such as Kinect, HoloLens and the mixed reality investments in Windows. AI took centre stage; for a summary of the main event, see here.
The cloud platform in Azure can take data from devices on the edge and process it on their behalf, or using smarter devices, do some of the processing locally, perhaps using machine learning models that have been trained in the cloud but executed at the edge.
With Azure Sphere, there’s a way for developers to build secure and highly functional ways to process data on-board and communicate with devices, so they can concentrate more on what their apps do, and on the data, less on managing the “things” which generate it.
Back in the non-cloud city, Google has adopted a similar developer ra-ra method, with its Google I/O conference also taking place in and around San Francisco, also (like WWDC and Build) formerly at Moscone. It happened this past week, too.
Like everyone else, some major announcements and some knock-em dead demos are reserved for the attendees to get buzzed on, generating plenty of external coverage and crafting an image around how innovative and forward thinking the company is.
Google Duplex, shown this week to gasps from the crowd, looks like a great way of avoiding dealing with ordinary people any more, a point picked up by one writer who called it “selfish”.
Does a reliance on barking orders at robot assistants and the increasing sophistication of AI in bots and so on, mean the beginning of the end for politeness and to the service industry? A topic for further consideration, surely.
It’s not been a great time in the press for Cortana. The personal assistant software which appeared nearly 4 years ago on Windows Phone 8.1 and later Windows 10, has been eclipsed in the last year by hardware-based offerings from Amazon and Google. At gadget-fest show CES in Vegas this week, manufacturers were even showing Alexa on their PCs (presumably in exchange for $$ from the largest online retailer).
The personal assistant market (somewhat incorrectly referred to as “AI”s by the mass media) is being talked up as a new frontier, of voice control meeting smart language understanding and connectivity. Apple were first to the market in the public consciousness with Siri, but now that Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home devices have been very sucessful (the Echo Dot being Amazon’s top selling bit of kit over the holiday season), the idea that people would use a phone as the main way to voice-interact with online services seems a little less assured than it was a couple of years back.
Alexa has led the way with integrating Amazon’s device and service, with other devices and services – just as the app made the smartphone useful and pervasive, the “skill” support of your chosen digital assistant seems set to make or break that ecosystem. Amazon has talked up having over 25,000 skills for Alexa – really impressive, though like smartphone appstores, there are a lot of “fart app” equivalents in there, amongst the good stuff.
Meanwhile, Cortana has been showing up on other hardware and building skills, both at a slower rate. The Haman Kardon Invoke speaker – fairly well received as a music device and Bluetooth speaker as much as a smart assistant – is on sale at $99. The beautiful-looking JCI GLAS smart thermostat, powered by Windows 10 IoT Core, is on the way too.
The Cortana skills kit promises to make it really easy for developers to add Cortana support for their apps and services, though Cortana Skills are still officially “in preview”. Alexa and Cortana may yet get friendly – though it hasn’t happened quite in the timescale envisaged.
Despite reports, Cortana is not dead, yet – there are device partnerships being announced and due to be announced. And the Cortana assistant is available on Android and iOS; Samsung S8 users could even remap the Bixby button with Cortana, though unofficially.
If you’ve a PC with the latest OS, you can get Cortana by pressing WindowsKey+Q, or even WindowsKey+C (to go straight to Cortana’s voice input), or even by saying “Hey Cortana” (check in Settings, look for Cortana). If you’re in the US, then you may be able to access Cortana Skills straightaway – there’s no installation or association required (like you’d need to do with Alexa skills), though you might need to configure or authorize the skill on first run.
Check out the list of supported Skills, here – there are quite a few fillers (yet more guff apps) making up the modest 250-odd skills available, but there are some good ones there too – see the featured skills for example.
If you’re in the rest of the world, though, you may be disappointed – Cortana Skills are US only for now. To have a play, go into the “Talk to Cortana” settings page, and at the very bottom, set the language to English (United States). You’ll need to wait a few minutes for your PC to install the appropriate language support, but soon, you’ll be able to ask Cortana – on your PC – things like, “Hey Cortana, ask Dark Sky for today’s forecast”.
For previous coverage of Cortana on ToW, see #380, et al.
With the news that Cortana is coming to a consumer audio device near you, it’s worth revisiting a few things that Cortana on your desktop can do for you. If you have a Windows 10 PC with a microphone, then you may be able to enable “Hey Cortana”, which lets you talk to your machine and ask it stuff. See what’s new with the Blue One in the Creators Update.
You can leave yourself voice notes and Cortana will stick them in the Quick Notes section of OneNote – using the Modern App version of OneNote, look under Settings -> Options -> choose a notebook for Quick Notes to set the default location.
Even if you don’t talk to your PC, pressing WindowsKey+Q will launch Cortana, as a quick way of searching for apps or documents on your machine, or answers on the web – just type in your query, then filter by the icons on top of the window as appropriate.
Cortana can do a lot more than just be a shim for Bing search; she can offer immediate advice, like what the time is in a different location, what’s the weather for tomorrow, and more. Type a flight number to see its current status, a stock symbol for a quote or a couple of currency symbols for an immediate exchange rate estimate.
While many of these commands work when you type them (eg type, time new york, as on the left), some will only work when spoken and some will give a better UI and/or more detail when voiced rather than typed (such as the “Hey Cortana, what’s the time in New York” query on the right)…
Of course, there are plenty of stupid things you can ask Cortana – open the pod bay doors, sing me a song, knock knock, who let the dogs out, etc etc. Just like Alexa or Siri, there are many built-in Easter Eggs.
You can sometimes string some interesting productivity commands together, too – some could be useful in context, like reminding you to buy milk next time you’re in a supermarket (whereupon your phone will trigger a reminder when it knows you’ve just walked into a supermarket, based on GPS) or next time you talk to a particular contact, to remind you to ask them something (where it will pop up when you next speak to them, exchange emails etc).
You can issue some pretty complex instructions to add reminders – eg. “Hey Cortana, add Pink Floyd exhibition Their Mortal Remains at the V&A to my calendar for tomorrow at 3:45” … and Cortana can put it on your calendar, or just maintain a list of reminders in her own Notebook.
(NB: screen shot to the right was not faked up, although it did take more than one attempt …)
A short and sweet tip this week, concerning the Edge browser in Windows 10.
If Windows 10 was “Threshold” and the November update was “TH2”, the next iteration of Windows 10 is being referred to as “Redstone”. Rumours have surfaced that the Edge browser is due to get some new features as part of the Redstone update, some of which are being tested on the Insiders program now or imminently. Interestingly, following last week’s tip about Windows 10 Mobile, there’s a new ring on Insiders that’s more cautious than “Slow” – “Release Preview”.
Even if the first “Redstone” update has started making its way into the Fast Ring, and that’s going to deliver extra tweaks to Edge, there’s still plenty to learn about the current version – like how it integrates with Bing or Cortana, for example. Cortana continues to add smarts at the back end too – ask her to “tell me an Oscar fact”.
If you right-click on something in Edge and have Cortana integration enabled (click on the … ellipsis on the top right of Edge, and look under Settings, View advanced settings), you’ll see a context-driven search for the term you’ve highlighted in a handy sidebar. It’s a brilliant way of checking the definition of a word, looking up supporting information on a person, product etc.
If you haven’t enabled Cortana & Edge, either through choice or because you can’t, then Edge will let you search Bing directly – and in practice, it may not make a lot of difference between what The Blue One shows you and what you get from Bing. Answers on a postcard, please.
Assuming everyone has upgraded to Windows 10 by now, it’s a useful time to post some tips that could help the new user get a leg up more quickly. So far, reaction seems to be going well – even some Mac users quite like it (though if you read to the very end, it’s not all a bed of roses) – and if, nothing else, there are some notable improvements over previous Windows versions.
The new Edge browser is one of the more celebrated bits of Windows 10, at least for now. It’s fast, it’s standards-compliant (and that’s something of a double-edged sword to a degree, as it means legacy plugins and old-layout web pages might not work). Even naysayers admit that Edge is a Good Thing, on the basis that it’ll put a firecracker into the Webkit bonfire, even if it’s not perfect itself.
For new upgraders, the first thing you might decide to do with Edge is to restore your favourites from IE – click on the multi-line icon on the toolbar, then the star (which represents Favourites), and click Import favourites to bring yours from IE. Some degree of username/password history will come across as well, though you may need to select the username on the first visit to a web page (as cookies are not migrated across).
To use Edge on intranet sites when attached to a corporate network, you can force the browser to try the intranet address only by adding a trailing slash to the end of the name – eg msweb/. This will stop it from trying to find that name on the internet, if for any reason it can’t get to the site internally.
If you are find sites that don’t like Edge, you can always click on the ellipsis (…) menu on the top right, and click Open in Internet Explorer, and the page will launch in IE11. Whilst you’re at it, you might want to pin the IE icon to your taskbar by right-clicking on it – then you can always go straight to IE next time.
If you’d like to change your default browser altogether, just type default web browser at the start menu, and that will let you reset to IE or another browser.
Keyboard CTRLs R US
Most of the usual keyboard shortcuts still apply in Windows 10, though there are a few changes & additions – with the removal of the Charms bar,
- WindowsKey+C fires up Cortana with voice input, if you’ve already got that working (see below)
- WindowsKey+S for everyone else, reduced to typing Cortana search commands or not having Cortana at all
- WindowsKey+A for the Action Center – the new notifications area that appears to the right of the screen
- WindowsKey+I for Settings of all sorts – very handy
- WindowsKey+TAB – quick way of seeing all the running apps, across multiple desktops
- WindowsKey+X still brings up the “power user” menu – a great way of getting to otherwise fairly hidden functionality like Device Manager
There have been some keyboard-related tips in recent weeks, and others regarding new apps that come with Windows 10. If you’ve not been using the preview, you might have missed them. See:
- #279 – Windows 10’s multiple desktops
- #280 – Telling time on Windows 10
- #281 – Calculator rebooted
- #286 – Windows Explorer tweaks in Win10
Hey Cortana! Oh, you’re not available…
Depending on how your upgrade has gone, Brits who run Windows 10 might find that Cortana isn’t showing up as available in the region, even though she’s supposed to be. The same might be true of other lingos – your mileage may vary.
Check you’ve got the right country set in the high-level settings, but don’t stop there –make sure the language pack isn’t still searching Windows Update, and that each of the components has been downloaded.
Select the Windows display language shown, and within Options, click on Speech and make sure the language you speak is correct.
If you make sure that you have the correct language pack installed, and that it’s set as the speech language, then you should be allowed to enable Cortana.
If you have a microphone on your PC, then you can also switch on “Hey Cortana”, which will mean she’s listening out for you to say that all the time… and will jump in with a spoken response to your every query. Just make sure your Windows Phone isn’t nearby or you’ll end up cheating on one Cortana with another. Let’s wait for the Cortana vs Cortana Youtube videos.
There are many cool things that Cortana can do, which make using Windows Phone 8.1 a pleasure. Try asking the following, if you have Cortana enabled:
- “Find the best nearby restaurants”, then…
- “Which are open now?” …
- “Traffic to the 3rd one” …
- “Drive there”
After each command, following commands will work in context with the results from the previous one – though it might take a bit of practice to figure out what you can say, and what is going to reliably be interpreted by Cortana. If you say something she doesn’t understand (maybe she’ll start playing some music or call some random number instead, mishearing “Drive” for “Play” or “Call”) then you’ll lose context and will need to start from the beginning.
One smart function, though, is when you want to use Cortana in your car. The specific UI will vary greatly depending on what car you have, but the important thing is that it may possible to use the car’s own functionality to get at Cortana’s smarts (which will be better than whatever is installed in the car, almost certainly).
Assuming you have Bluetooth handsfree functionality installed, you may have the option of pressing a steering-wheel button to interact with the phone – generally relying on the car systems to recognise names as you read them out, and searching a list of contacts either manually-entered or possibly sync’ed from your phone. Be careful not to faff about with your handset whilst driving – you may be breaking the law. Even in (some) parts of the US.
If your car has the ability to see your phone’s directory or phone book, then you should see a contact show up in the list (when viewed in the car – it doesn’t actually appear as a contact on the phone itself), called Cortana.
You may be able to set favourites on your car so that when you press a button, it will dial a particular contact or number – or maybe your car’s Bluetooth setup has enough capability that it will be able to recognise a “call Cortana” voice command.
Even if the car has a less advanced system, it’s generally possible to have a short dial or some other kind of saved contact that’s manually added. If you create a contact in your car’s directory with the number 555-555-9876 and try to call it using the car’s UI, then you’ll see Cortana spring to life – in other words, the phone won’t actually dial that number, it will activate Cortana and will use the Bluetooth functionality in the car to be the mic and speakers for the phone. Don’t worry that it looks like a US phone number – it works on international handsets too.
If you type that number into your phone, then it will attempt to dial – but if you call that number using the car (either by adding a contact or just by entering the number) then you’ll see if the car wins Cortana’s favours or not
Another week, another Windows Phone 8.1 (aka Nokia Lumia “Cyan”) tip.
Still no word from HTC about when 8.1 will roll out to 8X and 8S users, though there has been some news regarding the release of the already-in-testing “GDR 1” update for WP8.1, in relation to HTC handsets.
A developer/test build of the GDR 1 update is now available (if you have a kosher Windows Phone 8.1 phone and you install the Preview for Developers app, having first registered as a developer – just start a new project, sign in, accept the Ts&Cs and boom, you’re a developer – then you’ll get updated to the GDR1 build, which also means Cortana is available outside of the US).
However you receive it, one of the smartest updates to Windows Phone 8.1 is surely a feature called Word Flow. It is an uncannily-accurate way of drawing a shape on the keyboard which covers (more or less) the letters you’d otherwise be typing by tapping – see here for a back-to-back comparison.
Using Word Flow is likely to be both more accurate but also quicker than hunt’n’peck typing – it’s even been put to use in setting a world record…
There’s no need to switch anything on – if you have WP8.1, just start swiping whenever the keyboard appears. The software will automatically add a space to every word you keep, and if you want to add further punctuation then try:
- capitalising the first letter of the next word you swipe, by first tapping the ? key
- add a period to the end of the previous word, then a space, then capitalise the next word’s first letter, by quickly double-tapping the space bar
- Adding commas/colons/etc by tapping the appropriate key (eg &123). NB: Word Flow doesn’t do anything on the numbers/symbols key page…
So, if you’ve got 8.1 already, now is the time to fully embrace Word Flow. Type no more.