Microsoft has all but pulled the plug on Cortana at this point, its digital personal assistant that was meant to rival Siri and Google Now. Years earlier, however, Microsoft had big plans for Cortana as former Microsoft product manager Sandeep Paruchuri recently told Big Bets.
The year was 2011, and Apple had recently launched its own virtual assistant on the iPhone. Paruchuri and his team were inspired, but wondered if a more proactive assistant would be better. “The perfect personal assistant who could see around corners for you,” as Big Bets put it.
Once Windows Phone 8 launched a year later, the team had more time to invest in the idea – well, sort of. With the new OS now available, Microsoft immediately started working on three major milestone releases to try and remedy areas where the competition was still winning.
It was during this stage that the team working on search realized that simply making search better wasn’t going to win them any battles. People were still bypassing Windows Phone’s built-in search in favor of Google, so they linked up with the Cortana crew and got to work on that idea.
Marketing eventually got involved as well, and demanded Cortana have a personality and a sense of humor. They also preferred the name Alyx over Cortana. The latter was the internal codename given to the project, and was based on the AI from the Halo universe. When the Cortana name leaked out, Microsoft fans demanded it ship with that name. Not wanting to tick off their loyal fan base, marketing relented and gave the Cortana name their blessing.
One final hurdle stood in their way: approval from the CEO. Steve Ballmer was still running the show at that time, but the transition to the Satya Nadella era was near.
“Ballmer had poor product taste,” Paruchuri said in what might be the understatement of the decade. According to Paruchuri, Ballmer wanted the digital assistant to be more Microsoft branded, and suggested they call it Bingo after Microsoft’s search engine, Bing.
The team played the waiting game, and soon enough, Ballmer was out and Nadella was in. Nadella, a big fan of AI, fully supported the project and allowed the team to ship the product as Cortana.
The rest, as they say, is history. Cortana failed to make a meaningful impact in the virtual assistant space, and when Microsoft pulled the plug on Windows Phone, most knew it was only a matter of time before it would disappear from all mobile platforms.
Imagine for a moment if Microsoft had went with one of the other two names. Alyx would almost certainly have prompted Amazon to choose a different name for its Alexa virtual assistant, and who knows if it would have caught on the way it did. Bingo… well that probably wouldn’t have been a great choice, either.