It’s far too early to consider monetizing Cortana, Microsoft’s new virtual personal assistant, but the company is already thinking about how to scale her across different devices, platforms and around the world – namely Android and iOS. Those were two of the key points from Microsoft’s keynote conversation Thursday morning at our SMX Advanced conference in Seattle. Marcus Ash, a Windows Phone Group Program Manager, and Rob Chambers, a Group Program Manager in the Applications and Services Group, shared video and live demos of Cortana, and sat down for a Q&A with Search Engine Land’s Founding Editor, Danny Sullivan. Cortana is currently available as part of the Windows Phone 8.1 developers’ preview, and it can be used by anyone in the world so long as the phone is put on US settings. Ash and Chambers said Cortana — a “she” — is extremely popular in China already. Microsoft’s Cortana announcement in April promised a formal launch in the US, UK and China in 2014. But on Thursday, Ash said the company wants Cortana to be “pervasive” — not just at the country/geographic level, but also at a tech level across different devices and maybe different platforms. As I paraphrased in my live blog coverage, Ash said:
We want to scale Cortana internationally and across devices. The Android/iOS question is interesting. We’re asking, would Cortana be as effective if she didn’t have access to the details on your phone? We’re still trying to get Cortana adopted on Windows Phone and figure out what it wants to become there. But we’re actively talking about this.
I think it’s natural to think that an assistant that only runs on one device … the idea that she will be very pervasive is important to us.
Ash and Chambers did hint that Cortana could be brought to the desktop, into vehicles and other venues, too. They also spoke about another issue being discussed in Redmond: the possibility of integrating ads into Cortana’s interface. And the company has decided it’s far too early to be talking about that. As Ash explained:
We think we’re in the stage right now where we have to build trust with the users. We’ll explore monetization eventually, but Cortana is so nascent. It’s too early. We know there are commercial opportunities, but in this first year we need to establish what Cortana is and how people use it.
When is Cortana talking to me as my assistant versus … When is Cortana bringing in information that may have commercial intent? That’s something we really have to think through carefully.
One other interesting part of the discussion was about the impact of Cortana — and peers like Apple’s Siri and Google Now — on search. Although assistants like these are built on the idea of delivering information before a user even searches for it, Ash said he doesn’t think Cortana will mean the death of the search box. “I can’t imagine that,” Ash said. “The search box is what people know. That’s why we’re trying to bring [it and Cortana] together. The declarative intent of traditional search saves us so much effort — if you tell us what your interest are via search, Cortana gets so much better. We think Cortana makes you more likely to search, it doesn’t replace search.”