Software

Microsoft Cortana: The smart person's guide

Cortana is Microsoft's universal digital agent, and you should get to know her before she gets to know you.

You may not have noticed, but there has been a subtle yet significant change in the way human beings interface with their computing devices. The traditional standard of keyboard and mouse is not the only way we have to communicate with our computers anymore. We have entered the age of the personal digital assistant.

For Microsoft and devices running the Windows 10 operating system, the digital agent that will help us interface with our computing devices more efficiently is called Cortana. If you have a computer, tablet, or smartphone running Windows 10, you have Cortana—even if you have never used it. This TechRepublic smart person's guide describes what Cortana is, who its designed for, when you should use it, and why it matters.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's smart person's guides

Executive summary

  • What is Microsoft Cortana? Cortana is Microsoft's version of a universal personal digital assistant, or digital agent.
  • Why does Microsoft Cortana matter? Cortana could eventually be the primary interface we use to communicate with our computerized devices.
  • When should I use Microsoft Cortana? Cortana is handy when using your smartphone or other mobile device to control or interact with other connected computing devices.
  • Who does Microsoft Cortana affect? Since Cortana is integral to the operating system, it has the potential to affect everyone using a Microsoft Windows 10 device.
  • When is Microsoft Cortana available? Cortana is available now.
  • How do I get Microsoft Cortana? Cortana automatically comes with the Microsoft Windows 10 operating system. Cortana is also available as a standalone app for Android and iOS devices.

SEE: Free ebook—Personal digital assistants: The current lineup (TechRepublic)

What is Microsoft Cortana?

Cortana is Microsoft's version of a universal personal digital assistant or, if you prefer, digital agent. Cortana is an integral part of Windows 10 and is therefore available on any device running that operating system.

Additional resources

Why does Microsoft Cortana matter?

Some of the largest technology companies in the world (Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Amazon) believe that the digital agent will eventually be the primary interface we use to communicate with our computerized gadgets, the internet, and our network of interconnected devices ( Internet of Things). With that belief in mind, these companies are attempting to establish their version of a digital agent as the de facto standard for most consumers. Cortana is Microsoft's version of the digital assistant in this free-for-all competition.

Each company is looking to establish a foothold in this marketspace because they believe digital agent technology is the key that will hold consumers in their respective digital ecosystems. In other words, once you use a particular digital agent and establish a connection with the software, it will be difficult to switch to a different digital agent. Essentially, if you were to change, you would have to start all over again.

SEE: How we learned to talk to computers, and how they learned to answer back (PDF) (TechRepublic)

Competitors to Microsoft Cortana

Competition in the digital assistant marketplace has become fierce and dog-eat-dog, with major technology companies all vying for your attention. Microsoft Cortana's primary competition comes from two products:

  1. The Amazon Echo and the digital assistant commonly known as Alexa, and
  2. Google Assistant, which is associated with Google Home and other Android devices.

The Amazon Echo does an excellent job working with Amazon's other products like shopping and music, but lags behind in general tasks like keeping schedules or searching the internet. Google Home, on the other hand, is much better at searching the internet for miscellaneous information and takes advantage of the company's vast database of customer personal information.

Cortana's mission is productivity, which means the product does many things well, but does not outshine the competition in their respective specialties. Cortana is the jack-of-all-trades in this scenario.

Additional resources

When should I use Microsoft Cortana?

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Image: Microsoft News

You can use Cortana to perform searches or set reminders and perform other simple commands. However, to truly take advantage of everything Cortana or any digital agent can do, you must commit to the software. The basic axiom is this: The more a digital agent knows about you, the more it can do for you.

Cortana comes in handy for using your smartphone to control other connected devices in your world. For example, you can use your smartphone and Cortana to set up an appointment and add it to your Outlook Calendar on your desktop computer. Again, this level of interaction takes commitment and a thorough configuration of every device you use.

This is the next hurdle for Microsoft and the rest of the technology companies in this space—complexity. Right now, to fully take advantage of digital agents, the consumer has to be tech savvy. Microsoft is attempting to mitigate this potential knowledge gap for consumers by adding Cortana to every device running Windows 10.

Additional resources

Who does Microsoft Cortana affect?

Cortana has the potential to affect anyone using a Microsoft Windows 10 device. Whether you want the advantages of a personal digital assistant or not, Cortana is there just waiting to be turned on.

Cortana is also available as a standalone app for devices running Android and Apple iOS.

For the privacy conscious, it is important to note that once Cortana is on, it starts collecting data about you. An effective digital agent will know your likes, dislikes, and activity patterns. It will be able to tell not only who your friends are, but also who is not really your friend. This is some serious and intimate personal knowledge, which may be more personal than some users feel comfortable sharing.

Additional resources

When is Microsoft Cortana available?

Cortana is available now and comes pre-installed on all devices running the Microsoft Windows 10 operating system. For Android devices, the Cortana app is available on Google Play. For iPhone and other iOS devices, Cortana is available for download on iTunes.

Additional resources

How do I get Microsoft Cortana?

When you purchase a new device running the Microsoft Windows 10 operating system you will automatically have Cortana available if you choose to turn it on. Cortana can also be purchased in a standalone product such as the Invoke from Harman Kardon, which will be available Fall 2017. The device is similar to, and designed to compete with, the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

If you have a device or computer running a previous version of Windows, you can upgrade that device to Windows 10 for a fee.

For Android devices, the Cortana app is available on Google Play. For iPhone and other iOS devices, Cortana is available for download on iTunes.

Additional resources

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Image: Microsoft News

About Mark Kaelin

Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.

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