Microsoft has gone all in on its copilot initiatives, but the fact that Microsoft has introduced so many different Copilots has led to a bit of confusion.
At its simplest, a copilot is an AI-powered chatbot that has been integrated into Microsoft software. It allows a user to interact with the software using natural language queries. Microsoft has partnered with OpenAI, the company that created ChatGPT, and used the company's resources to create copilots that look and behave somewhat similarly to ChatGPT.
The different copilots for Microsoft's software and services vary in scope, and some are free while others require a subscription. For example, Microsoft is integrating a copilot into Windows 11. It is not currently generally available, but there is a prerelease version (Figure 1).
The Windows 11 Copilot will be free with a valid Windows 11 license, but many other copilots, such as Copilot for Microsoft 365 and GitHub Copilot, come at an additional cost. These are two of the most well-known copilots, so it's important to understand what each of them do and how they are different.
Copilot for Microsoft 365
Microsoft's flagship copilot is Copilot for Microsoft 365. Like the Windows Copilot, Copilot for Microsoft 365 can help users interact with the platform more efficiently. In addition, it can author documents on the user's behalf.
One of the major differences between Windows Copilot and Copilot for Microsoft 365 is that the latter is subscription-based as a separate license from the technology it operates within. The Microsoft 365 Copilot add-on subscription costs $30 per user, per month on top of the normal Microsoft 365 subscription fee.
Many organizations are essentially ineligible for Microsoft 365 Copilot at this time due to the 300-seat minimum for a license purchase. This translates to a minimum cost of $9,000 per month on top of the normal Microsoft 365 subscription fee. While $9,000 per month seems expensive, larger organizations will likely find that the cost is justified by the potential for increased end-user productivity. Copilot for Microsoft 365 can compose email messages, generate PowerPoint presentations and even use OneNote to help plan an event.
One thing that makes Copilot for Microsoft 365 so powerful is that it has access to all the same data that the copilot user has access to. This means Copilot can learn from data such as documents and email messages when formulating a response. As such, a user could prompt Copilot to generate a summary of a Word document or create a financial outlook document based on a collection of Excel spreadsheets. Copilot for Microsoft 365 is also integrated with Teams and can summarize Teams meetings, generate action items and search chat history for answers.
GitHub Copilot is intended for use by developers and is designed to act as a part of a pair programming: a practice in which two developers work together to develop code. Those developers share a workstation. One developer maintains control over the keyboard and writes the code, while the other developer helps to check the code as it is created. This technique helps developers to write functional code more efficiently and with fewer bugs.
GitHub Copilot uses an AI chatbot to generate code based on what the developer types. A developer might use GitHub Copilot to create an individual function or to assist with developing an entire app. However, because AI-generated code is not perfect, a human will still need to review the code to ensure it functions properly.
Like Copilot for Microsoft 365, GitHub Copilot is a subscription-based service. The cost ranges from $10 per month for an individual plan to $39 per month for an enterprise plan. Unlike Copilot for Microsoft 365, individuals can also sign up for a free trial for GitHub Copilot.
The sign-up process for GitHub Copilot gives users the option to either allow or block suggestions matching public code. Allowing such suggestions allows for flexibility, but blocking these suggestions can help you to avoid copyright issues if you are developing a commercial application.
To use GitHub Copilot, install the GitHub Copilot extension into a code editor. Users can download an extension for Visual Studio Code, Visual Studio, JetBrains or Neovim (Figure 2).
GitHub Copilot works differently from other copilots -- including Copilot for Microsoft 365 -- in that there is no text box for entering a natural language query. Instead, the copilot automatically creates code as the developer types. For example, a user could type Int CalculateDaysBetween and GitHub Copilot automatically creates a function based on what they typed (Figure 3).
It's similar to the way Microsoft Word suggests words or phrases as you type. GitHub Copilot is also able to generate code in response to text entered as a comment within a script.
Brien Posey is a 15-time Microsoft MVP with two decades of IT experience. He has served as a lead network engineer for the U.S. Department of Defense and as a network administrator for some of the largest insurance companies in America.