Once upon a time, a little clip with eyes would ask if you needed help writing a letter in Microsoft Word.
Microsoft has long had a soft spot for “helpers,” software that appears to be available to help you get more out of your Windows devices. Now, the company is building on its position as a major AI player and is set to bring a new type of assistant called Copilot to Windows 11 PCs later this year.
It’s not as cute as Clippy, and it can’t respond to you like Cortana. But it can make it a little easier to work on a Windows PC and how to take full advantage of Windows tools and settings.
Microsoft unveiled the feature this week at the Build developer conference, where much of the talk around Copilot centered around helping professionals and software developers be more productive. Perhaps more important is how Copilot can help unmask Windows for ordinary people.
“It would be a way to tell your device to do what it should always do,” said Shilpa Ranganathan, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Windows.
In other words, the days of wading through a sea of endless (and sometimes hidden) PC settings may soon be over.
If you agree, Microsoft is opening access to a preview version of Copilot for Windows 11 in June. If you’re a member of the company’s Windows Insider program, you’ll be able to try it out for yourself for free, but here’s what you need to know about Copilot before you get started.
A technical support agent who doesn’t judge you
You can ask Copilot the usual AI chatbot things – it will open up complex topics and try to answer actual questions when requested. With the help of plugins developed by some companies, Copilot can also do things like launch Spotify playlists.
Unlike the last time Microsoft talked about AI integration for Windows, Copilot gets more deeply involved with your PC. This means, among other things, that it can connect to some of your files more easily.
If you drag and drop an audio file into the sidebar where Kopilot lives, it will offer to transcribe the content. For example, testing the same thing as a document gives an option to generalize it.
If you’re not a power user, there’s also a chance that Copilot knows the ins and outs of Windows better than you do.
Through text messages, for example, you can suggest that she set the focus timer—an often-overlooked Windows feature that I trust—or switch your computer’s visual theme to dark mode. Ask it to organize multiple open windows on your desktop, and it’ll offer to guide you through using virtual desktops or Windows 11’s Snap Windows feature.
That’s right: If you need something on your Windows PC and don’t know how to do it, you can ask Kopilot. While Ranganathan admits that Copilot won’t always get the right answer, it still feels like a step toward computational clarity that some users could really benefit from.
“Let’s face it, the traditional help function in Windows has been lacking,” said JP Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. “Windows Copilot streamlines connections by connecting users to troubleshooting and Windows functionality faster.”
If Copilot is capable of more, Microsoft isn’t talking about it yet. Part of this may be because the company itself doesn’t know exactly what users will try to do with the feature. During Microsoft’s Build keynote on Wednesday, chief product officer Panos Panay urged people in the audience to try Copilot for themselves so they and the company could “learn together.”
“I say that out of true humility,” he said. “We still don’t understand everything.”
Because Windows Copilot hasn’t been released to the public — and all Microsoft has officially shown off is a short squeaky wheel — the finer points of how it works aren’t entirely clear. But Ranganathan clarified a few things that might make using Copilot a bit more palatable for some.
By default, ChatGPT, created and powered by Microsoft’s AI partner OpenAI, saves what you say to further train the big language models that make the chatbot so eloquent. Ranganathan says Microsoft hasn’t “gone down that road” yet, and doesn’t plan to specifically store your interactions with Copilot. That could change, however, and if it does, Ranganathan says, “you deserve to know.”
Copilot won’t proactively rummage through your files either. While some of its features—the ability to transcribe the content of audio recordings—require Copilot to interact with files on your computer, Ranganathan says any such situation would require explicit user consent.
“We will actively seek permission and consent,” he said. “I’m not a big believer in doing things with people’s data without their knowledge.”
For now, there’s not much to do but take Microsoft at their word – it’ll be at least a few weeks before we get a chance to test Windows 11’s new Copilot for ourselves. However, despite Microsoft’s somewhat rocky history with its software “assistants,” some industry observers are feeling cautiously optimistic.
“We have to be careful about making sweeping claims about any of these things right now,” Forrester Gownder said. “Based on the limited demos I’ve seen, I think Windows Copilot has a lot of promise.”