Microsoft’s Cortana was originally planned to be called Alyx, then Bingo
It’s no secret that Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana, was a failure in many respects, and quickly faded into obscurity after launch. But the project was once a very ambitious plan, and it seemed like it had all the makings of a great product. In the latest edition of the Big Bets newsletter, Sandeep Paruchuri, a former product manager at Microsoft, talked about the beginnings and the demise of Cortana, revealing a few interesting details about the development of the personal digital assistant.
As you probably already know, the name Cortana comes from the Halo series of games, where Cortana is an AI that preemptively provides the player with information about what to do next, which is why that name was chosen. As it turns out, though, that was only meant to be an internal codename, and by the time it was going to launch, Microsoft wanted to call the digital assistant Alyx, because it was easier to pronounce. But with the name Cortana leaking to the public, fans started pressing Microsoft to go with that name, and that’s what stuck.
That was until then-CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, tried to change the name once again. Ballmer wanted the feature to tie into the rest of Microsoft, specifically the Bing search engine, and thus, the idea was to call it Bingo. Thankfully, Microsoft’s leadership soon transitioned to Satya Nadella, who let Cortana live under her original name.
The name changes are just one portion of the interesting tidbits in this story, however. As Paruchuri recalls, Cortana started with an ambitious effort by a very small team that wanted to create a real-life assistant that was proactive like the Cortana character in Halo. Over time, more and more people got involved, but as time started to run out, some features had to be stripped out in time for release. Cortana was supposed to give you proactive alerts for transit, so if you had an appointment on your calendar for a specific time, Cortana would pop up and tell you when to start driving, taking traffic into account, so you could be there on time. That ended up not happening. Cortana also infamously launched as a US English-only feature, which was a concern for some of the development team.
Cortana launched alongside Windows Phone 8.1, and it received praise from those who were already fans of Windows Phone, but things generally went downhill from there. Paruchuri explains that after the initial positive feedback about Cortana, every product manager at Microsoft wanted a piece of it. With different people trying to implement different features, every decision required huge meetings, and the feature set of Cortana started to lose its original focus. Plus, lots of AI-related features started getting the Cortana branding, which ended up destroying what Cortana originally intended to be.
Microsoft also wanted to bring Cortana to the desktop, which happened with the launch of Windows 10, but it wasn’t really all that useful considering most desktop PCs don’t even have microphones built-in. Most PC users at the time also weren’t used to adding a Microsoft account to their PC. In the end, with Windows Phone itself dying out after Windows 10 launched, Cortana also fell into obscurity since it wasn’t that useful on the PC, and Android and iOS users had better alternatives built-in. In Windows 11, Cortana is almost completely out of the picture and it’s just a business feature now.
It’s always interesting (and somewhat disheartening) to learn about the bad decisions that lead to a product’s demise. You can learn more about the story in the latest edition of the Big Bets newsletter.