Why Microsoft Wants You to Chat with Outlook

But will it understand you?

Key Takeaways

  • Microsoft is adding conversational AI technology to its mobile version of Outlook.
  • Interacting with mobile devices by voice can be more efficient than using a keyboard, experts say. 
  • Cortana can schedule new events and customize the event details with natural language.
Someone sending a voice message on a smartphone.
PonyWang / Getty Images

Get ready to chat with your calendar as Microsoft plans to introduce conversational AI technology with Cortana for Outlook on mobile devices. 

Voice control offers a faster way to manage your time and inbox. Microsoft says Cortana can help schedule meetings, compose email messages, and find files, emails, and people. Interacting with mobile devices by voice can be more efficient than using a keyboard, experts say. 

"The biggest benefit with conversational AI is efficiency—we speak three times faster than we type, so there’s a time benefit right off the bat," Pete Erickson, the organizer of the voice technology event VOICE, said in an email interview.

"But voice interaction also allows us to drill down on specifically what we are looking for, allowing our device, in this case, an iPhone, to work as fast as we can tell it what to do."

Fewer Taps

Microsoft’s update will be rolling out in the coming weeks to iOS users of Outlook. After the update, Cortana will be able to schedule new events and customize the event details with natural language, Microsoft claims. The update also will come with the ability to suggest what you should add to your calendar, based on the time and your locations. 

"One of the core challenges of speech is that currently there is no one size fits all model."

The new features let you do more with less work, according to Microsoft. "For example, if you would like to schedule a meeting next week with three colleagues, it may take you more than 15 screen taps to set that up..." the company writes on its website.

"This new capability allows you to simply ask Cortana in Outlook to: 'Schedule a Teams Meeting on Tuesday next week with Megan and Adele at 2 p.m. to discuss the launch.'"

Voice Commands Rule

Microsoft is going up against many competitors that also offer to help navigate your apps using natural language. For example, Google’s smart compose suggests things you should write in Gmail. There also are "personal assistant bots" for scheduling, like x.ai, Robert Weissgraeber, chief technology officer and managing director of AX Semantics, an AI-powered, natural language generation software company, said in an email interview.

Bunch.ai has a "nice product for weekly/daily reflections and coaching, just like a good calendar setup does for you," he said. LinkedIn already gives generated short answers as a choice inside its messaging framework, he noted. 

Satya Nadella demonstrates Cortana, a new digital personal assistant function for Windows phones, as he delivers a keynote address during the 2014 Microsoft Build developer conference.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Microsoft's conversational AI has some advantage over other similar products, Charles McMillan, the founder of tech advisory firm Stand With Main Street, said in an email interview. "However it does have some aspects that they need to improve on such as device compatibility and the ability to distinguish accents."

More Chatty Software Is on the Way

The field of natural language scheduling apps is growing fast, as the technology becomes more accessible for startups, Lilia Gorbachik, a product manager in software development, said in an email interview.

Some of the smaller software companies in this space include Trevor AI, a tool that helps with scheduling and tasks; ZERØ, which offers AI-powered email for lawyers; and organization software Notion, which works with Amazon Alexa. 

Microsoft’s new Cortana features build on recent advances in the field of natural language processing, Weissgraeber said. "With cloud-based solutions, the backend can make deductions if a certain contact in a calendar event is a new contact, or a colleague, or a regular customer, and can adjust situations and suggestions accordingly," he added. 

"The biggest benefit with conversational AI is efficiency—we speak three times faster than we type."

But as anyone who’s ever tried to use software voice controls can attest, challenges remain before we will be casually chatting with our apps, and they will consistently understand us. 

"One of the core challenges of speech is that currently there is no one size fits all model," Zayd Enam, the CEO of Cresta, an AI software company, said in an email interview. "It's difficult to get a generic model robust to all kinds of background noise, microphone setups, accents, etc. But self-supervised learning on large amounts of audio might be the solution."

Was this page helpful?