Microsoft is pushing ahead with plans to position Cortana as a personal productivity assistant in the office with new features announced at Ignite this week.
While Cortana was initially launched as a consumer voice assistant to compete with the likes of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, Microsoft has increasingly targeted it for duties in its portfolio of productivity tools. With Play My Emails in Outlook for iOS, Cortana can now read emails aloud to users and update them on their work schedule, Microsoft said, offering a hands-free way to catch up on emails while on the go.
Cortana starts off with a summary of how many new emails a user has gotten in the past 24 hours, with an estimation of how long it will take to read them all. The AI assistant will also highlight any changes to their diary and potential schedule conflicts for that day, thanks to integration with Outlook’s Calendar app.
In addition to reading the content of emails, Cortana will explain how long they’ve been sitting in a user’s inbox, and provide additional information such as identifying the sender or whether an email contains attachments, links and embedded files.
Microsoft said that using Play My Emails is more like a conversation with a personal assistant than a basic conversion of email text to audio. Users say “Hey, Cortana” to interrupt the readout and give simple commands or to dictate an email response using the assistant’s natural voice and language recognition. It is also possible to skip messages, flag emails for later reading or archive them.
“Accessing core productivity apps such as email and calendar using voice commands can have a significant impact in productivity and underlines how voice can redefine how we interact with technology,” said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, a senior analyst at 451 Research.
He argued that the capabilities unveiled at Ignite should boost Cortana’s credentials as a personal productivity assistant – an important differentiation that sets it apart from other intelligent assistants like Alexa or Google Assistant.
Given the popularity of its productivity applications – Office 365 now has 200 million monthly active users worldwide – Microsoft has the clout to help popularize voice assistants in the workplace.
“A key challenge for a wider adoption of voice user interfaces in the enterprise has been integration to business applications and data sources; this entails secure access and some form of user and device authentication,” said Castañón-Martínez. “Microsoft is well-positioned to tackle this challenge, given its market leadership in productivity and collaboration and its trajectory as a provider of enterprise software applications.”
Play My Emails is available now in the Outlook for iOS app for users in the U.S., though it may take a few weeks to roll out to all users. The feature is slated to come to Android devices in the spring of 2020, said Microsoft, and there are plans to add functionality designed for Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds later on.
In addition, Cortana will soon be able to send a daily briefing email that includes a summary of upcoming meetings and relevant documents, as well as the ability to to set up meetings with the new Scheduler feature. By “cc-ing” Cortana into an email, users can ask the AI assistant to book a phone call or find a meeting room and will be presented with a series of options based on each user’s availability. A meeting invitation will then go out to all participants.
Scheduler is now in preview and will be generally available early next year.
In addition, Microsoft has added a masculine voice option for interactions with Cortana; users can access the option from the Outlook app’s settings.
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