Definition

Microsoft Cortana

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Microsoft Ignite 2017 conference coverage

Cortana is Microsoft's digital assistant. It was originally developed for Windows Phone 8.1 and is included in Windows 10.

How does Cortana work?

Like Apple's digital assistant, Siri, Cortana responds to natural language and can perform a variety of organizational tasks for end users, including setting reminders, scheduling calendar events, calculating math problems, and converting measurements and money.

To make Cortana work, users must enable the speech, inking and typing setting and turn on their location tracker. End users can still manage what information Cortana can access.

Cortana has an application programming interface (API) and can work with a variety of Universal Windows apps, as well as third-party apps, such as Facebook and Twitter. In addition, administrators can use the API to customize their line-of-business or in-house apps to interact with Cortana. Cortana is named after a female artificial intelligence (AI) character in Microsoft's Halo video game series.

Microsoft delivers Cortana's updates independently from Windows 10 updates, so the digital assistant can receive updates more frequently.

Cortana's features

On Windows smartphones, Cortana can initiate phone calls, send and read text messages, and answer questions using the Bing search engine. Users can launch Cortana by tapping the Cortana app or the search icon. An active listening feature also allows the user to simply say, "Hey Cortana," to launch the program without touching the phone.

On Windows 10 desktops, Cortana can open programs, find files and read or send email messages. Users can either type a request to Cortana or turn on the microphone and speak to the program. Cortana integrates with Microsoft's new web browser, Microsoft Edge, and Internet Explorer (IE). In Edge, users can simply highlight a word or phrase, and Cortana displays more information on the topic.


Learn some of the voice
commands that you can use with
Microsoft Cortana in Windows 10.

Cortana saves user preferences in a storage area called Notebook. The Notebook logs users' interests, favorite places and information they want to keep track of, including their favorite sports teams and news they are interested in. To access the Notebook, users simply open Cortana and click Notebook. 

How to disable Cortana

If users do not want to work with Cortana at all, they can turn the program off. Microsoft removed the switch to turn Cortana off in the Windows 10 Anniversary Update.

As a result, the best way to turn the digital assistant off in enterprise settings is through the Local Group Policy Editor. To open the Group Policy Editor, press Windows and R simultaneously and enter gpedit.msc into the box that pops up. Then, click Computer Configuration, Administrative Templates, Windows Components and Search. In the list that pops up, double click Allow Cortana and set it to Disabled. Finally, restart the computer.

Because Cortana's memory is nonvolatile, user preferences the program gathers are available if and when the user decides to turn Cortana back on.

This was last updated in May 2017

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