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In the competitive landscape of virtual assistants, Cortana has struggled to find its place. It lags behind competitors like Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri in the delivery of satisfactory responses to questions, and with no smart speaker or mobile operating system, it lacks native access to two of the most common devices people use to speak with AI assistants. It may still have the power to act as a general purpose assistant, but Microsoft wants Cortana to become your assistant at work.
The focus is on making Cortana a larger part of Microsoft 365 productivity software for the workplace, which sees applications like Outlook, Word, and PowerPoint currently being used by more than 180 million monthly active users. “We are really focusing on this experience, embedding [Cortana] across M365. That’s really the message,” said Microsoft corporate VP Andrew Shuman.
That strategy played out across multiple upgrades and announcements that Microsoft made Monday at its Ignite 2019 conference.
Cortana can now read your email summaries and send quick-reply responses in Outlook. The AI assistant is also getting into the dicey business of scheduling meetings, as well as delivering daily schedules and task rundowns. Excel now supports natural language queries, so you can ask questions about your Excel data, and you can use Cortana as a kind of coach.
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Email briefings from Cortana in Outlook can suggest focus time, and last month Microsoft launched Presenter Coach, a PowerPoint service that listens to your presentations and then provides feedback on pace, use of inclusive language, and repetitive use of mannerisms like “umm” and “basically.”
As other assistants focus on consumer use cases, Cortana is now able to transcribe your meetings, perform voice email playback, find and automatically remind you about tasks in your emails, and schedule your meetings. Cortana has also entered Microsoft Teams and Skype in recent years.
But absent any first-party hardware or a mobile operating system of its own, that means outside of Windows 10, Cortana is going to have live or die in a multi-assistant capacity, alongside the virtual assistants that are its direct competitors.
The future of Cortana hardware?
The double-down on integration with Microsoft software doesn’t address the fact that the company missed its chance on hardware. There’s no first-party Microsoft smart speaker with Cortana, like Google Nest or Amazon Echo, for example. The Harman Kardon Invoke, one of the only speakers with Cortana inside, saw little commercial success. Smart home integrations and Cortana skills don’t seem to see much adoption either.
That leaves Microsoft’s intentions for future hardware difficult to follow. In a conversation with VentureBeat last year, former Cortana product lead Javier Soltero stressed that Cortana adoption rates may be partially based upon Cortana’s ability to grow a presence in the home. On the other hand, Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott told VentureBeat that Cortana doesn’t need a smart speaker to succeed as an AI assistant and can instead rely on legacy strongholds like Windows 10.
Microsoft’s Surface headphones released a year ago and the recently released Surface earbuds are devices marketed to busy professionals, not particularly the home.
In an interview ahead of news Monday, Shuman talked to VentureBeat about Cortana’s focus on enterprise applications, Cortana’s future in hardware, and the new Voice Interoperability Initiative to make a multi-assistant world. “I echo Kevin’s point about ambient devices,” he said. “I think we’re going to continue to work on our Amazon partnership and thinking a lot about how M365 users who have an Amazon speaker can get a great experience, as we have that in beta already today and we’ll do more there,” Shuman said.
When asked about the less-than-clear hardware message Cortana can present, Shuman said Microsoft will look for opportunities with mobile devices. “We feel ever more convicted that getting ourselves into a great position on the [mobile] device you already have, you already trust with a lot of your data, but really being able to enhance that experience, because it is hard to do some stuff on the phone. That will be the way forward for us,” Shuman said.
In news that may run counter to the idea of a mobile strategy for Cortana, word emerged today that the AI assistant may be removed from the Microsoft Launcher for Android smartphones. VentureBeat reached out to Microsoft for comment. This story will be updated if we hear back.
Exactly how to define success for an AI assistant can depend heavily on existing market advantages. Cortana’s current focus is on leveraging mobile and PC software use cases. Meanwhile, Samsung’s Bixby might be losing a dedicated buttons on smartphones, and its Galaxy Home may never be a hit, but it could still succeed as a second-class assistant with third-party offerings and integrations with popular home appliances.
Microsoft would benefit from a multi-assistant world — and indeed it has to, because it lacks the competitive advantage of a popular mobile operating system or smart devices, like speakers or displays, that reside in people’s homes.
How to define AI assistant success in a multi-assistant world
In September, ahead of Amazon’s Alexa major annual hardware event, the Voice Interoperability Initiative launched with 30 partners, including Amazon and Microsoft, as well as Baidu, Tencent, Intel, Qualcomm, and Salesforce.
Notably missing from the group are Apple and Google, makers of mobile operating systems that are most likely to be used for interaction with an AI assistant.
“I think that’s why I’m most excited about that consortium, is to recognize that speech and natural language breaks down barriers between these experiences […] much more than any app platform ever has, because you’re not going to just think, ‘Oh, I’m only doing calendaring right now; I’m only going to talk about calendaring.’ No, you’re going to say … ‘Is there a cafe near that appointment I’m having?’,” Shuman said. “Those things are just going to become more and more part and parcel of this with much fuzzier lines, and that’s where I think that that should go.”
Microsoft has been pushing the notion of a multi-assistant world since it shared plans with Amazon to make Cortana available through Echo speakers and make Alexa available through Windows 10 PCs. Amazon’s Echo is the most popular line of smart speakers in the United States.
“I think we’re going to continue to work on our Amazon partnership and thinking a lot about how M365 users who have an Amazon speaker […] can get a great experience,” Shuman said, adding that the project is already in beta, with plans to “do more there.”
Shuman added, “In my life, I have maybe a doctor or a coach or a therapist, I have multiple assistants who are helping me all the time. You’re going to have multiple digital assistants, and they’re going to do different things for the right places. I mean, we’re never going to be an ecommerce company, so it’s really great that we can think about how Amazon can extend our experiences in the right ways.”
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella expressed a desire to connect Cortana with Google Assistant earlier this year, too.
There’s still much to learn about people’s habits with a voice ecosystem. Canalys predicted the sale of more than 200 million smart speakers worldwide by the end of 2019, up from 114 million in 2018. Voice assistant usage is up, but it’s unclear whether people are actually open to the idea of using more than one assistant in their lives. A multi-assistant plan might work, but Microsoft needs it to for Cortana to be successful going forward.
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