Cortana Unbound: Microsoft Finally Opens Up Its Digital Assistant to Devices

Posted on December 13, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Dev, Hardware, Mobile, Music + Videos, Windows 10 with 36 Comments

As Brad noted earlier today, Harman Kardon is building a Cortana-based alternative to Amazon Echo and Google Home. But it won’t stop there: Microsoft is in fact opening up Cortana quite a bit to developers, and it will let them put this technology in a wide variety of devices.

Let’s talk “Cortana Cube.” Suddenly, it’s a thing again.

That Harman Kardon device is just one of what I assume will be many hardware devices based on the newly-announced the Cortana Skills Kit and Cortana Devices SDK.

“The Cortana Skills Kit is designed to help developers reach the growing audience of 145 million Cortana users, helping users get things done while driving discovery and engagement across platforms: Windows, Android, iOS, Xbox and new Cortana-powered devices,” the Windows Apps team says. “The Cortana Devices SDK will allow OEMs and ODMs to create a new generation of smart, personal devices – on no screen or the big screen, in homes and on wheels.”

That “no screen” bit is important. Yesterday, Mary Jo Foley reported on a WinHEC session at which Microsoft said it planned to add Cortana support to Windows 10 IoT Core devices … with screens.

“While some company watchers are expecting the addition of Far-field Voice to enable OEMs to build Windows-based devices similar to Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home, Microsoft Principal Program Manager May Ji made it clear during her session that Microsoft’s focus — even with devices running the Internet of Things (IoT) Core version of Windows 10 — will be to have Cortana work on devices with screens, not those without screens,” Foley explained.

Ji showed images of Cortana running on screens on a refrigerator and a thermostat.

Today’s announcement reveals that no-screen devices—which is what Echo and Google Home are—will in fact be available, and as I noted previously, this is the more desirable approach because spoken word conversations are more natural and work better throughout a home. Requiring a screen means you’ve failed.

And Microsoft has finally spoken—well, written—the words I’ve wanted to hear. Because this is what I’ve been arguing about Cortana for a long time now.

“We believe that your personal assistant needs to help across your day wherever you are: home, at work and everywhere in between,” the Windows Apps Team states, correctly if belatedly. “We refer to this as Cortana being ‘unbound’ – tied to you, not to any one platform or device. That’s why Cortana is available on Windows 10, on Android and iOS, on Xbox and across mobile platforms.”

To make this vision a reality in 2017, Microsoft says it is working with a variety of partners across industries and hardware categories, including connected cars.

Bravo. Finally. But bravo.


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Comments (36)

36 responses to “Cortana Unbound: Microsoft Finally Opens Up Its Digital Assistant to Devices”

  1. 1687

    I'm looking forward to Cortana in my car :)

  2. 5539

    If you see a screen, they did it wrong - Paul Thurrott

    • 5592

      In reply to SvenJ:

      4/8/2010 - "If you see a stylus they blew it" - Steve Jobs
      9/9/2015 - Apple introduces the Apple Pencil stylus

      12/13/2016 - "Requiring a screen means you’ve failed." - Paul Thurrott

      • 5485

        In reply to MikeGalos:

        Steve Jobs made that statement in the context where most if not all smartphones required a stylus to interact properly with its smart functions has touch was non existent or highly inefficient (lacked a gesture language, speed and precision). He never said a stylus would not be a good use case for certain tasks, but as we know today because of his vision, those tasks are far far less than back than).

        The case for voice looks similar in a lot of appliances. Wether companies already have the tech to execute it properly that is another matter. Who will crack it?

  3. 129

    I want Cortana in my car NOW!

  4. 5548

    It sounds like Microsoft is doing this the right way--fingers crossed. This along with Cortana on IOT is a comprehensive and well thought out plan that is more likely to succeed than just rushing to market with the next me-too speaker system that--even if it was announced in the October event--would have failed against Alexa: google home is a good example what not to do.

  5. 6844

    Great news! Now we need Cortana on your wrist!

  6. 1294

    The current problem I see with Cortana is what MS had a few months back with Skype.  if I stand on my living room and say Hey Cortana, my windows PC, Xbox and phone will all activate.

    Technically, Cortana now is with me at all times, I get in my car and the bluetooth automatically connects, I can call Cortana from my car, of course using the phone, which would be required anyhow to get an internet connection.

    Yes, it would be nice having Cortana integrated in the car, would be awesome - out of this word - if I'm running low on gas and she automatically suggest I stop at the gas station three blocks down, she already has similar features with the GPS based reminders, she just has to put all that data together, and she's not that sophisticated yet.

    However, I do not want to get in the my car, call Cortana and have my phone and car answer at the same time.  Not sure how MS would implement a fix to that, but it's something that needs t happen before we have an unbound Cortana assistant, instead of a Cortana army.

    • 6354

      In reply to Mestiphal:

      I agree. MS needs to focus more on those sorts of issues to improve user experience, such as how super annoying it is that the same notifications don't automatically dismiss on all other systems at the same time. It feels really satisfying how Google's 2-Step Verification "Google prompt" feature automatically dismisses on other devices within 1-2 seconds of acknowledging on a device, yet Microsoft's 2 factor annoyingly stays on the screens of other devices.

      MS needs to focus more on polish such as that, rather than just having features such as the robust alerting of's calendar while it is that they still too often have trouble with them actually notifying on time.  Too often it feels as if the dev teams are tasked with the next project before they finish refining the existing one.

  7. 5496

    "Requiring a screen means you’ve failed." So that means Amazon echo failed because they're work on one with a screen?

    If someone used a screen with it, does not mean that it failed.

  8. 2371

    I think the screen should be optional.  I mean, if I don't have a screen and I ask Cortana what the weather forecast is this week, I screen is much better than having her repeat if five times so I can digest the information I need while others are talking or doing other things around me.  It can be about usability and lets face it, if you have money for a device like this, you have the money for a device with a small screen (maybe $10 added on to the device).  Also, you should be able to queue Cortana into saying or displaying the information by "Cortana, display the weather forecast?" verses "Cortana, what is the weather forecast?".  Then or course have display options for displaying favorite pictures, recent pictures, recent albums, Bing pictures, etc. when Cortana is not being used.

  9. 5192


  10. 5530

    I have no idea why the tech media and blogosphere is talking about the Amazon Echo like it's some kind of runaway success. I don't get it. It doesn't even have the sales number to back it up.
  11. 5530

    I think this makes Cortana the only digital voice assistant to be truly everywhere - from PC, to tablet, to phone, to xbox, and now god knows where else with IoT.

    I mean, Google Assistant is great and all, but it isn't on the PC (or chromebook), and I assume if it ever comes to tablets it'll be on an Android device, and we all know how good Android tablets are.

  12. 6354

    Based on the (apparently inaccurate) screen requirement news, the look of the Cortana Harmon Kardon speaker, and other concept pictures that all showed the Cortana circle animation, I expected a touchscreen capable of displaying the Cortana animation would be the minimum for such devices.  I'm curious how the guidelines will go... maybe MS will require a screen with the Cortana animation for anything larger than something such as an Echo Dot or remote microphone?

  13. 214

    “We believe that your personal assistant needs to help across your day wherever you are: home, at work and everywhere in between,” the Windows Apps Team states, correctly if belatedly. “We refer to this as Cortana being ‘unbound’ – tied to you, not to any one platform or device. That’s why Cortana is available on Windows 10, on Android and iOS, on Xbox and across mobile platforms.”

    And that's why Cortana could - will - become an integral part of a deeply personal "multiple factor authentication" that could elevate Windows Hello to a must have.  It has the potential to eliminate passwords.

  14. 8665

    I am really excited about this announcement, it is about time! It will be nice to have a Cortana "no screen" device that works within the Microsoft ecosystem.  No one wants to be tied down at home to a screen in order to get things done. With a "no screen" device it really makes Cortana seem like a true digital it kinda humanizes her as voice interaction is a more normal interaction.  Personally, I can't wait to try this product.

  15. 5554

    "Growing audience of 145 million Cortana users" 

    So they're counting all the people that got tricked into the forced install of Windows 10 as "Cortana users".  Right. Just like there are 145 million "Edge users", "Windows Store users" and "Bing users" but nobody actually uses those $hit$hows.   And ofcourse "only available in US".  

    No one's buying MS's big, round, inflated marketing numbers, sorry.

    • 5530

      In reply to PeteB:

      I'm sure they count active users and not the userbase. But wait....Microsoft never said there are 145 million edge users....WTF. Those are Chrome numbers. Edge has an even smaller base than Safari, lmao. They haven't released those kind of Windows Store numbers either, hell they don't even release stats about the Store anymore because they want to focus on quality>quantity.

      There are Bing users out there, it has a commendable marketshare in the US, whether you like it or not.

  16. 5767

    I wonder if we'll see a Surface Home Hub next fall.

  17. 5664

    I think I should put off my decision on an Echo. Don't you?

    Of course you do.

    Maybe ill just get it anyway.

    • 442

      In reply to jimchamplin:

      I waffled originally, decided not to take advantage of the pre-release offer of Echo.  But eventually got one.  I haven't regretted it, unlike Paul did when he returned his.  But, often I wish the Echo could just do more.  Sadly, it's all due to software too.  Hopefully Cortana will open up more developer's minds to possibilities and make things happen that haven't happened before.

    • 5767

      In reply to jimchamplin:

      Somehow I doubt we'll see a Cortana skill that allows you to order stuff from your account. That will be an Amazon Echo exclusive forever.

  18. 2175

    Very exciting news. That Harman Kardon speaker looks nice too

  19. 1829

    Very interesting news indeed.

  20. 127

    I wish Microsoft would truly democratize (it is the popular 'Redmondian' buzz word these days, right?) Cortana, and make the english version of Cortana available world wide

  21. 1820

    It's like they listen to Windows Weekly. :)

    Too bad they missed this holiday season. And I also have to wonder: like Windows phone, is this too little, too late?

    • 4506

      In reply to jbinaz:

      The AI and IOT market is still in its infancy so there is tones of time. This market needs companies to get their software on as much devices/sensors/products as possible. Microsoft took the best approach to this.

  22. 206 the 'killer' feature of Cortana that it can 'talk' to devices across all mobile OS's?  (iOS/Android/Win10)   Or am I reaching here? One Ring to rule them all?

  23. 4506

    Does anyone know how Windows 10 IOT handles updates? There isn't much info I could find. Does it depend on the OEM or Microsoft?


    Also Microsoft is playing a very smart game. When you are in the IOT space, it's more important to have your platform on as much devices as possible not having a limited amount of products.

  24. 5394

    Certainly makes me wonder from where does it get your music collection or where does it buy your concert tickets.

  25. 8853

    This is good.

  26. 1583

    Funny thing just happened...I played the ad and my phone Cortana started up! I hope they have a fix for this issue.