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Microsoft Cortana Has a Bad Few Weeks

It's certainly been a rough start to 2018 for Microsoft's virtual assistant.

  • Even inside Microsoft, Cortana's been getting some rejections. On Jan. 5, Microsoft discontinued a public preview of an integration between Cortana and Dynamics 365 that the company had previously promoted. The preview had put Dynamics 365 in Cortana's notebook, and Cortana had prompted users with relevant information about sales activities, accounts, opportunities and meetings.
  • Cortana was supposed to be besties with Alexa right now. Microsoft and Amazon had announced back in August that people would be able to use Cortana on Windows 10 PCs to access Alexa and to use Alexa on the Amazon Echo and other Alexa-enabled devices to access Cortana. The two would become like a team of assistants, allowing Alexa to handle managing Cortana specialties like booking meetings or accessing work calendars when a user was near an Echo, and allowing Cortana to control Alexa specialties like shopping on Amazon.com or controlling smart home devices from a Windows 10 PC. The integration was supposed to be done by the end of the year. But the companies missed the deadline and have not provided a new target date.
  • Alexa is elbowing its way onto Windows territory. During CES last week, Acer announced that it would be bringing Alexa to some of its Aspire, Spin, Switch and Swift notebooks starting in the United States in the first quarter of 2018, with broader availability coming in the middle of the year. Other OEMs have discussed Alexa integrations, as well.
  • CES buzz in general was heavy on Alexa, with some Google Assistant thrown in. It was the second big Alexa year in a row for CES. Cortana, on the other hand, did not make any kind of splash at the show. Apple Siri was also a non-factor. Microsoft did try to generate some Cortana CES buzz by highlighting some reference designs from Allwinner, Synaptics, TONLY and Qualcomm.
  • Outsiders haven't been bothering to teach Cortana many new skills. As All About Microsoft's Mary Jo Foley pointed out in mid-December, Cortana is seriously lagging behind Alexa in the skills department. Microsoft released the Cortana Skills Kit in May 2017, and take-up has been slow. Alexa had 25,784 skills to start 2018, according to Voicebot.ai. Cortana had just 230 as of mid-December. The enthusiasm level is reminiscent of Microsoft's efforts to get modern apps for Windows 8 and apps for Windows Phone -- a slow, late start.

That Cortana is far behind while there's a lot of excitement about voice assistants is not surprising.

For one thing, she's on the wrong platform. Cortana launched as a public face of Windows Phone, and a good one too. With a backstory and fan base from the "Halo" video game franchise, the name was an inspired choice with a built-in personality to draw upon. But Windows Phone went nowhere, so that's not a user base. (Maybe if the Surface Phone materializes, it will be worth revisiting.)

Smartphones are a logical place for voice input -- typing and texting on phones is challenging and annoying, making the annoyances of dealing with a voice interface a reasonable tradeoff. And talking and listening to a phone is theoretically safer than attempting to look at one while driving. There are more than a billion Android smartphones out there, making Google Assistant an automatic player in the voice assistant game. (The inability of Siri to break out as a voice platform is probably more of a strategic concern for Apple than Cortana's position is for Microsoft.)

When it comes to voice-enabled speakers like the Amazon Echo, voice isn't just a competitive interface choice -- it's the only option in most cases. While Amazon is starting from a small base of maybe 20 to 30 million Echo devices sold to date, the company has all the momentum and a lot of industry partner enthusiasm.

Cortana's user base for now is PCs, and when it comes to voice input, it's not a great place to be. The keyboard and mouse/trackpad are an awesome combination -- voice has to get very, very good before it can ever displace those very mature inputs for a user seated in front of a laptop or PC. It's for the same reason that Alexa integration with PCs may be less promising than the PC OEMs make it out to be.

Microsoft's virtual assistant ambitions are bigger than the PC base; in fact, they're bigger than Cortana.

The PC user base is only part of Microsoft's market, and it's a shrinking part. As the company redefines itself as a cloud company, one of its real strengths is its deep history with the enterprise development community and its experience at enabling that community.

Microsoft's official statement about discontinuing the Cortana-Dynamics 365 public preview provides a clear example of the strategy in action:

We are working to deliver a robust and scalable digital assistant experience across all of our Dynamics 365 offerings. This includes natural language integration for customers and partners across multiple channels including Cortana. To that end, we are discontinuing the current Cortana integration preview feature that was made available for Dynamics 365 and we are focusing on building a new long term intelligent solution experience, which will include Cortana digital assistant integration.

Getting developers to use Azure services for voice recognition, chatbots, translation, machine learning and artificial intelligence are all strategic plays for Microsoft. Expect the company to keep working to develop first-rate user experiences that evolve the gimmicky aspects of Cortana's personality into a better and better virtual assistant interface for unlocking deeper business value from more and more of Microsoft's advanced cloud services.

Bad start to 2018 or not, Microsoft needs to keep a hand in virtual assistant technologies. As long as that's the case, Cortana will probably continue her role as the public face of that broader and deeper effort.

Posted by Scott Bekker on 01/16/2018 at 3:06 PM


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