Microsoft begins rolling out its Scheduler meeting service, plus more Outlook voice features on iOS

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Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft has been working on creating a meeting-scheduling service since at least 2016. Today, June 8, officials said they are starting to roll out this Scheduler service in English for Microsoft 365.

Microsoft’s Scheduler enables Cortana to act as the front end for scheduling meetings with people outside of a user’s organization. Microsoft is rolling out some other Cortana-branded capabilities on the voice front for Outlook on iOS, as well, starting today.

Scheduler got its start as an AI-powered bot called Calendar.help. Microsoft rebranded that technology as “Scheduler” in 2019. Microsoft’s goal was to release the Scheduler service in 2020, but that date was pushed back due to the pandemic.

Scheduler uses Cortana to negotiate a meeting time. The service allows users to use natural-language queries, such as “Find a time for me and Paul to meet for breakfast next week,” to schedule their meetings. The backend service looks up attendee availability and go back-and-forth over email before sending calendar invitations. Scheduler can also reschedule and cancel meetings.

In cases where technology isn’t enough to complete a meeting-scheduling request, Microsoft is going to rely on humans to figure out inconsistencies or required clarifications. “The human assistance that supports Cortana are a part of Microsoft’s Supplier Privacy & Assurance Standards and are bounded by our Privacy statement,” said officials in today’s blog post. They emphasized that even though human assistants will have access to full email conversations, Graph data and other information, they won’t have access to links or attachments. Scheduler will not process encrypted mail sent to the Cortana mailbox.

Admins need to enable Scheduler using a PowerShell commandlet in order to create a custom mailbox and configure it to process the meeting requests. Users can purchase Scheduler through the Microsoft 365 Admin Center. Even if an organization already has Cortana for Windows 10 and/or the Cortana briefing email enabled, users still need to purchase and enable Scheduler separately.

Scheduler will be available as an add-on to most Microsoft 365 licenses with a Microsoft Exchange Online plan. Scheduler costs $10 per user per month with an annual commitment and $12 per user per month if paid month-to-month. Volume and partner discounts are available and the 30-day standard free trial is available for Scheduler.

If you’re wondering whether Scheduler will replace the FindTime feature in Outlook, the answer is no. Microsoft officials said FindTime is still considered to be an “active” feature in Outlook, though it requires more manual organization and intervention.

Microsoft also is starting to roll out some new voice features for Outlook for iOS, starting today. Microsoft announced these features back in February, stating they’d be coming soon. June 8, today, is the actual kick-off of that rollout.

These new features allow users to use voice to schedule meetings and compose emails in Outlook Mobile. Users need to hold down the plus sign in Outlook mobile, then hit the microphone icon to “Use Voice” and tell Cortana what they want to do. They can ask Cortana questions, such as “When’s my next team meeting?” or request Cortana add more meeting invitees.

The enhanced Outlook Mobile voice features also let users do things like say “attach the latest budget to the meeting invitation,” and the Microsoft Graph will attach the appropriate document, officials said. And the Dictation feature that’s available already in Word or Outlook, also is now available for iOS with Outlook Mobile.

Conversational AI technology with Cortana is something Microsoft highlighted back at its Build 2019 conference. At that time, company officials showcased how users would be able to get Cortana to understand and respond to “turn-by-turn” kinds of interactions. That capability will begin rolling out in Outlook for iOS ” for email, calendar, and search in the coming weeks,” officials said. 

Officials described the ability for users to manage their time, schedule events and meetings in Outlook, add participants to meeting invitations, and compose messages all using just their voice as “our first step towards a full conversation experience.” Execs said a lot of these kinds of Cortana-voice-assisted capabilities would become real thanks to advances from its Semantic Machines acquisition

Microsoft officials said the advanced voice capabilities re-announced today are all “coming soon” to Outlook Mobile for Android. In related news, Microsoft Office for Android has a new voice-capture feature for live speech-to-text transcription, which is available for testing by Office Insiders. 

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