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Microsoft's new Cortana app doesn't know the answer to 2+2

Microsoft's Cortana may eventually become the business assistant workplaces need, but it's fair to say that its transition to an app is shockingly bad in places.

cortana questions
Mark Hachman/IDG

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Microsoft confirmed Friday what PCWorld’s testing has already discovered: Cortana’s transition to an app in the upcoming Windows 10 20H1 release comes with some big, fundamental limitations. That includes a surprisingly basic one: It can’t even perform basic math. 

Microsoft representatives told PCWorld later that additional skills, such as calculator functions, will be coming with general availability.

Right now, Microsoft’s Cortana remains docked in your Windows taskbar. When you click on the icon, you can (orally) ask it questions, such as the height of the Eiffel Tower or the what the weather forecast will be. Within the upcoming Windows 10 20H1 feature release, Cortana moves from a docked experience to a separate, distinct app, and that’s where the problems creep in.

Microsoft characterized the new Cortana as a “beta,” and it’s now been optimized for integration with your work life more than anything else. In a blog post on Friday, Microsoft confirmed a big limitation. You can log into either your work or your personal account with it, restricting Cortana queries to information it knows about one account or the other. For example, unless you’ve chosen to note your proctologist appointment on your work calendar, it’s possible Cortana won’t know when that appointment actually is.

Microsoft windows 20h1 cortana 2 basic math Mark Hachman / IDG

Here you can see Cortana fail where a first-grader succeeds. 

Cortana is now an assistant designed for work, Microsoft says, “with an emphasis on productivity, helping you quickly find the information you want across Microsoft 365.” That means you should be able to access information about your coworkers and workflow first and foremost. There’s one plus that’s not within the current version: you can now talk or type to Cortana, and the exchange is treated like a chat app, with a list of results that can be scrolled up and down.

What Cortana can’t do now

And that’s just for Americans. “For English (United States) users, Cortana will assist you in better managing your schedule and tasks by staying on top of your calendar and focusing on what matters with meeting insights,” Microsoft says. “You can speak or type requests to find people or files, or quickly create or query emails. You can also easily check your calendar, set a reminder, or add to your lists in Microsoft To Do.”

Microsoft windows 10 20h1 cortana conversation Mark Hachman / IDG

It is nice to see the Cortana app within Windows 10 20H1 include pictures alongside results, but that’s still not much to offer.

And if you’re outside the United States, sorry. Only “conversations with Bing” and “the ability to chat with Cortana” will be included, whatever that means.

But Microsoft is removing Cortana’s abilities to play music, govern your connected home, and manage third-party skills. That essentially means no controls for Spotify, the final (?) demise of third-party Cortana-powered IoT devices like the Harman / Kardon Invoke, and the end of the partnership with Amazon’s Alexa. Microsoft will also be turning off the Cortana services in the Microsoft Launcher on Android by the end of April.

And if you ask Cortana’s new app what 2+2 is, the answer is “I don’t know the answer to this one. But I’m learning.”

What our testing has shown

In my early work testing the Cortana app, I had also discovered that the Cortana app allowed for just one account to be used at a time, and that the Alexa functionality had been stripped. (A PCWorld video of some of the expected Windows 10 features, including our Cortana discoveries, should be up soon.)

windows 10 20h1 cortana alexa microsoft Mark Hachman / IDG

Cortana: you’re dead to me, Alexa.

But one enormous one stuck out: Cortana couldn’t do simple math. Oddly, perhaps, this is a common use for me. When we benchmark test new laptops, we average the results. We’ve never automated the averaging process, so I often just ask Cortana to add the results, and then divide to give me an average. In the new Cortana app, that function is simply gone, which is just an inexplicably dumb shortcoming.

There are a few positives. Being able to scroll up and down the list of results is a plus, and Cortana’s ability to include images alongside results is attractive. But some of the listed “features” are just dumb. Use Cortana to open the Settings menu? Or an app? It saves a click, sure, but this isn’t a feature worth promoting.

In our video, and as I reviewed the app, I speculated that Cortana’s newfound app status, and the fact that its capabilities were dependent on server-side cloud services, could mean that these deficiencies will be solved over time. It appears that they won’t be. Microsoft severely hamstrung its messaging on its cloud and productivity services today, and is going to be roundly, deservedly mocked for Cortana’s shortcomings. 

Updated at 2:06 PM with a comment from Microsoft on Cortana and its calculator functions. 

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