Company / division: Cortana
Microsoft is bringing its Cortana virtual assistant to Skype, over a year after it first demonstrated some of the features at its Build developer conference in 2016. Whereas Cortana does act in some settings as a voice assistant like Siri and the Google Assistant, it’s worth remembering that Microsoft uses the Cortana name to refer to all the underlying AI capabilities too, and that’s what’s being implemented here. The integration is text- rather than voice-based and limited to messaging rather than voice or video interactions, and Cortana will offer up smart replies in messaging conversations and also offer useful information like movie and restaurant reviews. In some ways, this is a different spin on the Context Cards Snapchat added today, and very much along the same lines as Facebook’s current implementation of its M assistant within Messenger – offering context-based suggestions within existing human-to-human interactions. This is part of Microsoft’s broader push to get its AI into every corner of its products and services, but will hampered by the overall stagnation of Skype as a communication platform – though it clearly has some messaging users, it isn’t the default messaging platform for the vast majority of the population, at least in their personal lives.
I haven’t seen an official announcement around this, but Windows Central reports that Microsoft has quietly added support for four smart home vendors – Nest, SmartThings, Hue, Wink, and Insteon – to its Cortana virtual assistant. On the one hand, this is good timing with the Harmon Kardon speaker apparently getting ready for launch, but on the other it’s odd given the recent voice assistant partnership between Microsoft and Amazon, a big selling point of which was being able to control smart home gear through Alexa. In fairness, the latter still has much broader support for smart home ecosystems than Cortana, but Microsoft’s assistant now talks to several of the largest, and these plans must have been in the works for months now, certainly before the Alexa partnership was announced. At any rate, it’s going to be much simpler to control these devices directly through Cortana than through the awkward two-step process the Alexa partnership would require, and this is a good addition ahead of the launch of Cortana-based speakers.
via Windows Central
A listing for Harman Kardon’s Cortana-powered speaker, which has been teased for nearly a year by Microsoft and its partner, has shown up on the Microsoft online store, priced at $200 and listed as going on sale on October 22nd. The marketing materials emphasize quality audio, with 360° sound, smart home control, and the ability to make hands-free calls using Skype, though that feature will cost money after an initial 6-month trial of Skype’s outbound calling feature. At $200, the cost is the same as the speaker Sonos announced yesterday, but since neither has been formally reviewed yet we can’t know how the audio quality compares, while Sonos differentiates in a big way by being part of a multi-room system. The price point, though, is indicative of the challenges of competing in this market if you can’t monetize in ways other than through the hardware itself, something that certainly applies to both Harman and Sonos. Amazon, on the other hand, and to a lesser extent Google, can afford to sell devices at or below cost because their ecosystems will benefit in other ways and through other revenue streams such as e-commerce or advertising. HP also has a Cortana speaker coming out soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was priced similarly high.
via The Verge
★ Amazon and Microsoft Announce Cortana-Alexa Integration (Aug 30, 2017)
Microsoft and Amazon have officially announced that their respective assistants will begin working together later this year, news broken by the New York Times along with interviews with the companies’ CEOs. Of the four major voice assistants, these two are arguably the weakest, for all that the prevailing narrative is that Amazon is ahead in voice. As a reminder, Amazon has perhaps 15-20 million users of its Alexa assistant today, while Microsoft has 145 million regular Cortana users, Google has hundreds of millions of Android devices in the market with some form of its voice assistant technology, and Apple has nearly a billion Siri-enabled devices in use, with 375 million monthly active users as of June. More importantly, both Amazon and Microsoft are bound to a single category of devices today: home speakers for Amazon and PCs for Microsoft. Yes, both have smartphone apps too, but they’re very much second class citizens behind the built-in assistants available from the lock screen on the two major smartphone platforms. So the coming together here makes a certain amount of sense on that basis.
However, this doesn’t solve that fundamental problem of getting first party status on smartphones, and the integration the companies will offer will at least at first be both awkward and limited. Users of either assistant will have to invoke the other using double commands (“Cortana, open Alexa…” or vice versa) before even speaking their request. The integration itself will likely focus on smart home control from Cortana and personal information management through Microsoft’s apps from Alexa, filling an important gap in Amazon’s portfolio given that it lacks its own broadly-used calendar, contacts, reminders, or other PIM apps. In theory, the integration will get less awkward at some point down the line, with each assistant deciding on the fly which underlying AI to use to process a request, but in practice that seems challenging.
For today, it’s relatively straightforward given that the two assistants excel in different domains, but Microsoft’s partners are about to launch the first Cortana-powered speakers and other home devices that will compete more directly with the Amazon Echo, and the overlaps between their capabilities will only grow over time. So who will decide which AI handles which requests? Will this integration only live as long as the companies can agree on that? Or will the lead assistant in each case grab the tasks it wants and leave the dregs for the other? Meanwhile, both Google and Apple will make inroads into the home speaker space in the coming months, allowing them to provide more ubiquitous voice assistants and erode Amazon’s early lead in the home voice market. To summarize, though the logic behind a deal here is reasonably sound, it’s likely to be strained over time and less relevant as the two larger voice platforms expand in the home.
Note: for non-subscribers, I’ve temporarily opened access to the “Amazon is Ahead in Voice” narrative evaluation linked below, so you can go and read (or watch a video on) the broader context for this move and why I say above that Amazon is one of the weaker rather than stronger players in this market.
via New York Times
I’m at Microsoft’s Build developer conference this week, and got a little preview of some of what’s being announced in a private session for analysts yesterday. Today’s day 1 keynote is focused on Microsoft’s broad vision for this year’s event and its cloud and AI business. Many of the things I cover most closely will actually be in tomorrow’s keynote, which will cover more of the consumer-facing parts of the business. But there were still several notable announcements today that are worth talking about, even on a site like this that’s more consumer tech-focused. Firstly, it’s worth noting CEO Satya Nadella’s philosophical intro, which emphasized the ethical and other responsibilities tech companies have as well as the limits of tech in solving the world’s problems. That’s an admirable stance and a theme we’ve seen more from Nadella than any other tech leader in recent years.
Secondly, Microsoft’s big push this year is a shift from Nadella’s earlier mobile-first, cloud-first vision to a new vision around intelligent cloud combined with intelligent edge. What that means is that Microsoft sees the cloud as being less centralized and more distributed, including in edge devices, and its new Azure IoT Edge concept takes cloud computing functionality and puts it in potentially tiny devices at the edge of the network. That’s a somewhat unique vision for the cloud, especially from a company that’s also strong in the core cloud context. If Microsoft is right about this vision, and I suspect it is in the industrial world especially, then that raises interesting questions for other vendors and their ability to push that capability into edge devices, where operating system companies are strong but others tend not to be.
Thirdly, Microsoft is pushing what it calls its Graph, which is a sort of backend for its own services but also opens up to developers, and began as an agglomeration of data about users and is expanding to include those users’ activities in apps and across devices. The idea is that this Graph will power continuity between apps and other activities for users through both first-party and third party features. It’s a good concept and in some versions is reminiscent of what Apple does with Handoff and Continuity in its operating systems. But the big challenge for this vision at Microsoft is that it’s got a huge gap in its Graph around mobile, because people spend the vast majority of their mobile time outside Microsoft devices, operating systems, and apps. I can’t see it changing that, and that’s going to reduce the value of the Graph significantly, especially in the consumer world. I’ll have more commentary on some of the consumer-focused announcements in tomorrow’s keynote.
Lastly, one kind of consumer-focused announcement today, which has been subtle on stage but covered somewhat in the press regardless based on pre-briefings is Cortana Skills, which were announced way back in December but are now going more generally available to developers. What’s interesting here is that unlike Amazon’s Alexa Skills, at least some of these third party capabilities will be built in even if users haven’t explicitly installed or enabled the apps, including weather app Dark Sky and Domino’s Pizza. We’re still in the very early days here, but it will be interesting to see how skills on a PC-centric assistant like Cortana evolve differently from those on speaker- or phone-centric assistants like Alexa or Siri.
via Techmeme (and about a thousand articles on different announcements made today which you’ll find linked there)
The Verge has been talking about a future Windows feature called HomeHub since December, but this week has some images that are designed to show how HomeHub will work in practice, and it’s likely we’ll see this revealed officially at Build this week. HomeHub is a somewhat family-centric virtual assistant for Windows 10, which will combine Cortana voice features and more visual features on a sort of always-on home screen. It looks like Microsoft sees this feature both as something that PCs will offer and as something that will be available on dedicated devices. The Verge is that it suggests Microsoft sees all these devices being effectively full Windows 10 PCs, which feels like a huge mistake given how streamlined these devices can and should be. Even though Microsoft has evolved in its culture and strategy in very positive ways over recent years, things like this make you realize how tied to its past strategy of putting Windows everywhere it still is. At the very least, this ought to be running the more streamlined Windows 10 S it announced last week. But I’m all for tech which helps families stay organized – something I’ve argued more tech companies need to be working on. Given the launch of Echo Show this morning, Microsoft will have a concrete competing example of the same concept to go up against, which will likely raise the bar for whatever it announces. It’s also possible we’ll have Apple’s version of this to look at by the time the next version of Windows ships in the fall, further raising the stakes.
via The Verge
Back in December, Microsoft announced its equivalent of Amazon’s Alexa platform for third parties in the form of its Cortana Skills Kit and Cortana Devices SDK. A week later, Harman Kardon announced its was working on a speaker that would feature Cortana, and said it would launch in 2017. Five months later, the two companies have provided a name (Invoke), pictures, and some capabilities for the device, but there’s still no specific launch date (beyond “Fall 2017”) or pricing. On paper, the Invoke looks a lot like Echo in both its design and its capabilities (it even has an Echo-like 7-mic array), and the main difference is that it will do Skype voice calls, which is something that’s been rumored for both Echo and Google Home but isn’t yet supported by either. One advantage Harman would have over Amazon or Google in this space is that it’s a speaker maker, so it may well have better audio quality in its version than those companies have in theirs, something that’s been a shortcoming in this category so far. And of course, it’s interesting given Samsung’s ownership of Harman Kardon that this speaker is running neither of the assistants Samsung itself supports – its own new Bixby assistant or the Google Assistant – though this partnership obviously began before the Samsung acquisition closed. Pricing is an interesting question: whereas Google and Amazon both have broader ecosystems which benefit from such a device and therefore justify subsidizing or selling it at cost, Harman obviously needs to make money on it, so it may end up being priced higher (as Apple’s version likely will be too). Lastly, we might see other ecosystem devices using Cortana announced at Microsoft’s Build developer conference this week.