Microsoft business tools get the Cortana treatment

With Cortana Analytics and GigJam, Microsoft presents Cortana as a way to power business applications with everyday languages, not only programming languages

Microsoft business tools get the Cortana treatment
Credit: Image: Melissa Riofrio

Call it the Cortana-ization of Microsoft.

At the 2015 Worldwide Partner Conference in Orlando, Microsoft revealed two new business applications -- Cortana Analytics and Microsoft GigJam -- that allow business data from a variety of sources to be used and mixed together freely.

Both are powered by the Cortana personal assistant for Windows Phone, albeit in different ways, and both are designed to make IT-powered business processes less like programming.

GigJam, as demonstrated by Microsoft, could be thought of as a collaborative business reporting tool. Data from business applications (Microsoft's and others) can be pulled in, and users can get reports by asking Cortana for them in plain language. The resulting data isn't static and can be further cross-referenced with data gleaned from other apps, as well as shared in real time with other users, either on their own devices (iOS, Windows, or Android) or across a Skype connection.

Microsoft emphasized this wasn't merely screen sharing, but more like a custom application created from the data. Data sharing could also be customized on the fly -- for example, by excluding parts of a report from another person's view by crossing it out on one's device.

Cortana Analytics Suite also leverages Cortana for business use, but at a higher, more action-oriented level. The suite automates many common business actions based on data, such as fraud detection, churn prevention, and forecasting. With Cortana, Microsoft adds "perceptual intelligence," using speech and sentiment analysis to figure out customer needs.

Microsoft is positioning these and other newly announced products as a "democratization" effort, akin Visual Basic putting the power of client-server programming into many more hands. That might not an appetizing analogy; anyone who's supported a legacy Visual Basic application in production is probably wrinkling their nose right now.

Still, the intent is clear: Microsoft wants to make analytics more accessible to those who don't have the time or inclination to work with an actual analytics suite, and to do that not by creating a new programming language, but by leveraging the everyday spoken-word terminology of business. (IBM is attempting to do roughly the same with Watson and with its enterprise mobile-app lineup, but it doesn't yet have a single offering as all-encompassing as what Microsoft is describing.)

Less clear is whether these tools will be democratized in the same way as other recent Microsoft innovations. Azure Service Fabric, for instance, is meant to bring the code used to build Azure's infrastructure into a user's data center. Cortana Analytics Suite and GigJam look like they'll remain cloud-only offerings for now.

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