Once upon a time, a tiny paper clip with eyes would ask whether you needed help writing letters in Microsoft Word.
Decades later, in an age when innovations such as Apple’s Siri became a big deal, Microsoft built a software assistant called Cortana for its ill-fated Windows phones, and then for Windows 10.
Microsoft has long had a soft spot for “assistants,” seemingly approachable bits of software meant to help you get more out of your Windows devices. And now that the company is leaning into its position as a major AI player, it’s gearing up to bring a new kind of assistant, called Copilot, to Windows 11 PCs later this year.
It’s not cute like Clippy, and it can’t speak back to you the way Cortana could. But it could make working on a Windows computer — and figuring out how to take full advantage of Windows tools and settings — a little easier.
Microsoft unveiled the feature at its Build developer conference this week, where much of the conversation around Copilot centered around helping professionals and software creators be more productive. Maybe more important, though, is how Copilot might be able to help demystify Windows for regular people.
“It would be a way to command your device to do what it should have always done,” said Shilpa Ranganathan, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Windows.
In other words, the days of wading through a sea of endless (and sometimes arcane) PC settings may soon be over.
If you’re feeling up to it, Microsoft is opening access to a preview version of Copilot for Windows 11 in June. You’ll be able to try it out for yourself free if you’re a member of the company’s Windows Insider program, but here’s what you should know about Copilot before you take the plunge.
A tech support agent that doesn’t judge you
You can ask Copilot the usual AI chatbot things — it’ll unpack complex topics and try to handle factual questions when prompted. And with the help of plug-ins some companies have designed, Copilot can also do things like fire up Spotify playlists.
Unlike the last time Microsoft talked up an AI integration for Windows, though, Copilot hooks more deeply into your computer. That means — among other things — it can more easily interact with some of your files.
If you dragged and dropped an audio file into the sidebar Copilot lives in, it’ll offer to transcribe the contents. Trying the same with, say, a document yields an option to summarize it.
Unless you’re a power user, there’s also a pretty good chance Copilot knows the ins and outs of Windows better you do.
Through written messages, for example, you can prompt it to set a focus timer — a oft-overlooked Windows feature I rely on — or switch your PC’s visual theme to dark mode. Ask it to organize the many open windows on your desktop, and it’ll offer to walk you through using virtual desktops, or Windows 11’s Snap Windows feature.
That’s right: If there’s something you need your Windows PC to do and you don’t know how to make that happen, you can ask Copilot. And while Ranganathan concedes Copilot may not always get the answer right, this still feels like a step toward computing clarity that some users could really benefit from.
“Let’s face it, traditional help functionality in Windows has been deficient,” said J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. “Windows Copilot appears to smooth out the connections, linking users to troubleshooting and Windows functionality faster.”
If Copilot is capable of even more, Microsoft isn’t talking about it yet. Part of that may be because the company itself doesn’t know exactly what users will try to do with the feature. During a Build keynote address Microsoft held Wednesday, chief product officer Panos Panay urged people in the audience to test Copilot for themselves so they and the company could “learn together.”
“I say that from a true point of humility,” he added. “We don’t understand everything yet.”
Because Windows Copilot hasn’t been released to the public — and because all Microsoft has officially shown off is a short sizzle reel — the finer points of how it works aren’t fully clear. But Ranganathan did clarify a few things that could make using Copilot a bit more palatable to some.
By default, ChatGPT — created and operated by OpenAI, Microsoft’s partner in AI — saves what you say to it to further train the large language models that make the chatbot so eloquent. Ranganathan says Microsoft has “not gone down that path” so far, and that it hasn’t been planning to specifically save your interactions with Copilot. That could change, though, and if it does, Ranganathan says “you deserve to know.”
Copilot won’t proactively go snooping around in your files, either. While some of its features — like the ability to transcribe the contents of audio recordings — require Copilot to interact with files on your computer, Ranganathan says any situation like that would require a user’s explicit consent.
“We’re going to actively look for permission and consent,” she said. “I’m not a big believer in doing things with people’s data without their knowledge.”
For now, though, there’s not much more to do beyond take Microsoft’s word for it — it’ll be a few weeks at least before we get the chance to test Windows 11′s new Copilot for ourselves. Still, despite Microsoft’s somewhat rocky history with software “assistants,” some industry observers feel cautiously optimistic.
“We have to be careful about making sweeping claims right now about any of this stuff,” said Forrester’s Gownder. “Based on the limited demos I saw, I think Windows Copilot has a lot of promise.”