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ISSUE 20.29.F • 2023-07-24 • Text Alerts!Gift Certificates
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Susan Bradley

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In this issue

WINDOWS 11: Another AI you didn’t ask for: Windows Copilot

Additional articles in the PLUS issue

PUBLIC DEFENDER: Will Threads be the real Twitter killer?

HARDWARE DIY: Opal becomes Obsidian

ON SECURITY: Zero day in the cloud


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Another AI you didn’t ask for: Windows Copilot

Josh Hendrickson

By Josh Hendrickson

Microsoft’s new AI for Windows has me asking the same question over and over: Who is this even for?

I’ll get to why in a moment, but it’s not a good first impression for Copilot, the new AI Microsoft intends to build into Windows. It’s out in preview right now for anyone on the Windows Insider DEV build, and naturally I had to give it a go.

First impressions are everything, and Copilot starts off … well, strange.

We’ve been down this road, sort of

Before we get into that first impression, it’s probably important to get into what Windows Copilot is, and also what it isn’t. This is not Microsoft’s first attempt at building an AI-like program into Windows, after all. Not that long ago, the company made a big deal about Cortana (Figure 1), a digital assistant based on the Halo video-game character of the same name. Copilot and Cortana are quite different, though.

Figure 1. Do you remember Cortana?

Cortana spoke to you, out loud, and promised to be a personal digital assistant. You could ask Cortana to control your smart home, to remember important dates, or to remind you to buy flowers for an anniversary. Cortana made lists, answered questions about the weather, and remembered your preferences. Most of all, Cortana had a distinct “personality,” again based on the video-game character.

Windows Copilot doesn’t do any of that. It doesn’t speak (thank goodness), remember dates, or remember much of anything else for that matter. Copilot doesn’t exhibit a consistent personality, either. It’s based on the recently introduced Bing Chat, which is itself powered by GPT-4 — the language learning model made famous by ChatGPT. Yes, Copilot is a chatbot to which you pose questions, but it differs from Bing Chat by adding deep Windows integrations. At least that’s the promise.

And so we return to my first impression of Copilot. Having upgraded to the latest Windows Insider build, I have a new icon on my taskbar. Launch that, and Copilot opens on the right side of the screen, pushing over any windows you might have open. “Ask complex questions,” it prompts me (Figure 2). Then it gives a suggestion: “What are some meals I can make for my picky toddler who only eats orange-colored food?” When my children were toddlers, they went through a picky food stage, but neither insisted on food of a specific color.

Odd question
Figure 2. What an odd question!

It’s not hard to imagine that such a child exists. There was a time when I thought my daughter might exist forever on mac and cheese (though she’s now in her twenties, my fear continues). But it’s such a niche request for a specific scenario that I have to ask the question that truly confounds Copilot: Who is this for? If the best example Microsoft can provide up front is something this rare, I’m having trouble getting my hopes up.

Click on that question, by the way, and Copilot helpfully provides a few suggestions — pumpkin waffles, cubed potatoes (orange sweet potatoes?), fish sticks, rutabaga, and sausage biscuits. I have doubts about getting a toddler to eat rutabaga, which isn’t even orange. What about carrots? Out of curiosity, I clicked on a few of these results — Copilot provides links. To my surprise, Microsoft Edge launched, even though that’s not my default browser! The entry for rutabaga took me to an article about children liking food of a specific color, suggesting the root vegetable (with no preparation suggestions) to children who like beige food. Not orange. Sausage biscuits led me to an article about foods for picky toddlers with no mention of colors at all.

Not quite what Microsoft promised, at least not yet

Yes, Copilot immediately suffers the same issue as all ChatGPT-style AIs. It browses the Web for information, summarizing and writing content around those results, but it doesn’t truly understand them. It found a list of foods for picky toddlers but didn’t understand the difference between beige and orange, or that another list was more generalized. Unfortunately, that same inability to truly understand exists throughout the entire Copilot undertaking, at least in my experience to date.

Take Microsoft’s other lofty promises. The company released a “commercial” promising that instead of asking your computer to do something directly, you could tell Copilot what your desired outcome is; it would then suggest the best settings to change to reach it. So instead of just typing “turn on do not disturb,” you’ll ask Copilot, “How can I adjust my settings to get work done?” (See figure 3.) The answer, according to the video, involves turning on the dark theme and focus timer. When I tried it, Copilot suggested I restore my Windows 10 PC to a previous system restore point, then adjust my Windows startup settings.

Not the promised answer
Figure 3. Not the promised answer

Nothing, I assure you, would be worse for getting work done than trying to restore Windows to an earlier version from backup — unless you were recovering from a catastrophe. Similarly, Microsoft’s commercial suggested I could ask Copilot for good background music while working and then choose one of its suggestions. Copilot would then open the Spotify app and start playing Copilot’s suggestion. That didn’t work, either. Instead, it summarized articles it had found and then gave me links to them, along with a link to a YouTube video filled with music. I suppose that’s somewhat helpful, but it’s not the promised item.

Another promise, that you can load a document to Copilot and have it summarize or rewrite the contents, just isn’t working right now. Again, to be fair, this is an early preview on an Insider build of Windows. It’s to be expected that not everything works correctly — I’m beta testing. But I still find myself returning to the question I asked earlier.

Who is this for?

The debate continues to rage on over whether you should even upgrade to Windows 11 from Windows 10. If security isn’t the reason, then new features would be the draw — newly added capability not available in Windows 10. Right now, there isn’t much that separates the two versions of Windows in terms of features. And every new feature that Microsoft does add needs a purpose. Otherwise, it’s not a feature. It’s just … there.

I decided to see whether Copilot could help me understand, so I asked another question (Figure 4).

Copilot thinks it's just Bing chat
Figure 4. Copilot thinks it’s just Bing Chat, which is true.

At least in this early form, Windows Copilot is cobbled together from Bing Chat and barely integrated into Windows. Its answers suggest that you accomplish things in a more roundabout way than you already could — you know what music works best for you when working. Even if you didn’t, you know how to Google for suggestions. Worse yet, there’s a decent chance that whether you Google it or use Copilot, the suggestions you’ll get won’t suit your personal tastes or needs.

Microsoft seems to be envisioning some future where you constantly adjust the look and feel of your Windows machine, based on your current task. “Copilot, give me a work vibe. Now a video-game feel. Now a check-my-email aesthetic.” (Raise your hand if you set up Windows the way you like, and rarely touched those settings since.) The company also imagines a future where you’d rather talk to your computer about everyday life than speak with a real person. But would you rather ask a friend to proofread your hard work, or a faceless corporation?

So I ask, who is that for? The only answer I can find is that this is for Microsoft. Copilot sounds exciting, and it capitalized on work the company was already doing for Bing Chat. It’s a minimal effort to bring a “new and exciting” feature to Windows 11. But in its early preview, I’m just not convinced it will last any longer than Microsoft’s last new and exciting feature that promised about the same thing — Cortana.

Like many other features or buzzwords that came before (blockchain, metaverse, 3D TVs, and a thousand others) — just because you can add AI to something, doesn’t mean you should.

Talk Bubbles Join the conversation! Your questions, comments, and feedback
about this topic are always welcome in our forums!

From the nearly the moment he could spell “computer,” Josh Hendrickson has been fascinated by Windows, PCs, and the electronics that have become an integral part of life. He previously wrote for How-To Geek, served as the Editor in Chief of Review Geek, and worked for both Microsoft and the makers of UltraEdit.


Here are the other stories in this week’s Plus Newsletter


Brian Livingston

Will Threads be the real Twitter killer?

By Brian Livingston

The parent company of Facebook and Instagram — Meta Platforms — launched this month Threads, a Twitter-like social network. It looks like the first serious contender to knock Twitter off its perch.

Unlike other Twitter competitors — Mastodon, Bluesky, Truth Social, and many more — Threads has already attracted a gigantic audience. The Threads app for iOS and Android surpassed 100 million users in just its first five days. That makes it the fastest-growing app ever, besting ChatGPT, which required two months to hit the same mark.


Will Fastie

Opal becomes Obsidian

By Will Fastie

In this final article about building my new Windows 11 PC, I reveal a surprising change.

It’s taken quite a long time for my new Windows 11 PC to get to the point when it could become my daily driver. I admit to some sloth. Worse, I confess to some confusion.

Nonetheless, the unexpected delay in the project has been a worthwhile learning experience.


Susan Bradley

Zero day in the cloud

By Susan Bradley

If you are a consumer, home user, small-business user, or even a medium-sized business user, today’s column may anger you — or at least cause you to mutter, “I told you so.”

For those of you who work in large companies and government entities, your size allows you to complain more loudly than most. I hope you will, because the event I’m about to discuss, plus all our past and present complaints, should make all cloud vendors, especially Microsoft, take note.

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