Main image of article Microsoft Cortana: First Casualty of the Digital-Assistant Wars?

Amazon has Alexa, Google has its voice-activated Assistant, and Apple has Siri. Anxious to compete in the growing digital-assistant wars, Microsoft rolled out Cortana—but that might have been a case of too little, too late. 

Without a popular smartphone OS to double as a platform for its assistant (as Apple has with Siri) or a burgeoning ecosystem of “smart” home devices (like Amazon and Google), Microsoft has been reduced to pushing Cortana as part of the Windows 10 search experience. On paper, that must have seemed like a smart move; given the user base for Windows, there was a chance that Cortana could have gained significant adoption. 

However, Microsoft is separating Cortana from search, moving it into the Windows Store as a standalone app. That might give Microsoft the opportunity to update Cortana more often (as opposed to waiting for new Windows 10 upgrades), but it reinforces the idea that the assistant is increasingly adrift. Cortana isn’t on a plethora of smart devices; it’s disappearing from the Xbox; and it’s no longer baked right into Windows.

That doesn’t mean Cortana is in imminent danger of outright cancelation.“I think that what we’ve been really working on over the last year is how we can better embed Cortana across Microsoft 365 experiences and really delight users, especially those users who really are on board,” Andrew Shuman, head of the Cortana initiative, told The Verge, “so we have to understand their calendar, their tasks, their work documents, their interfacing with their close collaborators.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has also said that he envisions Cortana as interoperating with Google Assistant and Alexa, just like how Microsoft-built apps run on Android and iOS. That’s an interesting pivot, but Cortana risks losing its unique identity in the process.  

So let’s be real: this is the same thing that happened to Microsoft in the smartphone realm. If you’ll recall, Microsoft launched Windows Phone after Apple iOS and Google Android had a head start; it failed to encourage third-party developers to build an extensive ecosystem of Windows Phone mobile apps; and then, once its share of the smartphone market truly began to nose-dive, it made some noise about “unique” phones and pivoting before the whole thing crashed.

Being a fast follower, in other words, hasn’t really worked out for Microsoft over the past decade (with the possible exception of Azure vs. Amazon Web Services). And unless the company comes up with an interesting, unique angle for Cortana—or miraculously encourages an army of developers and device-makers to jump onboard—it seems likely that the digital assistant will simply erode away, becoming the first casualty of the “consumer A.I.” wars.