Microsoft explains its plan to win the ‘battle for the future’ against Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant – Business Insider

Cortana from the “Halo”
video games is the namesake for Microsoft’s virtual personal


This is going to be the year of Amazon Echo and its Alexa
personal assistant, if
last week’s Consumer Electronics Show is any
. But Microsoft,
that other Washington-based tech titan, has
its own master plan to conquer the coming market for voice-based
assistants and applications.

Much of that strategy hinges on Windows 10’s Cortana personal
assistant. Back in December, Microsoft announced a
new set of tools for programmers to start building Cortana into
their own apps and hardware
, with
Harman Kardon announcing a Cortana-powered smart speaker
take on the dominant Amazon Echo.

And at CES 2017, Microsoft announced a new set of services for
auto manufacturers, with Nissan as the first customer going
all-in — meaning your
next Nissan may have Cortana in the dashboard

But, as Microsoft General Manager Ryan Gavin told me at CES 2017,
the entire Microsoft ecosystem has a part to play in Cortana’s
“battle for the future” — from Microsoft Office, to the Microsoft
Azure cloud, to the company’s $26.2 billion purchase of LinkedIn,
to, yes, car dashboards.

Amazon Echo

AP/Jeff Chiu

The overall vision behind Cortana is simple, says Gavin:
“Everyone deserves their own personal assistant.”

And it means that Microsoft is going to take on Amazon, Google,
and every other contender in the emerging voice market and this
“battle for the future” by focusing on helping people be
productive, which is already the company’s main focus.

Bots, LinkedIn, Outlook, and beyond

While Amazon focuses so much on using Alexa to drive commerce,
and Google focuses on search — their “points of strength” — Gavin
really sees Cortana standing out from the crowd as a productivity

It’s not that Cortana will be just for what Gavin calls
the “prosumer,” he says. Like the Amazon Echo, Cortana will be
able to control select smart home gear. And she’ll keep on

To that end, Microsoft views the notion of voice commands as
necessary, with the company investing in chatbots like
China’s beloved Xiaoice
, the
notorious xenophobic Tay
, or
the more politically correct Zo
. From these bots, Microsoft
learns more about helping Cortana hold down a more human-like
conversation, to better serve as an assistant.

htc one m8 for windows cortanaSteve Kovach/Business Insider

And yet, that kind of so-called “natural language” is “not the
defining piece” of these systems, Gavin says. If Cortana is to be
your assistant, and not a novelty, she needs to know not just
about your life or your smart home gadgetry, but about your work.
Which, not coincidentally, is Microsoft’s sweet spot.

“She really knows my work world,” Gavin says. 

Thanks to Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, Cortana has a view into
work users’ e-mails and calendars. With the Microsoft Office 365
cloud service, she’s slowly getting the power to search files and
turn up relevant documents.

And, sooner rather than later, LinkedIn will start feeding
Cortana more contextual information on the people you’re meeting
with. Plus, Microsoft is providing the tools for developers
to not only hook their apps into Cortana, but also to
use the Microsoft Azure cognitive services to give them
similar levels of artificial intelligence

Where you are

There’s another half of that equation, too: Presence. “My
assistant needs to be there for me,” Gavin says, literally. 

Amazon’s Alexa may have started in the Echo, but as we saw at
CES, it’s making its way to refrigerators,

car dashboards
, and
table lamps

Similarly, Microsoft is laying down the groundwork for Cortana to
spread out, from the Windows 10 PC where she mainly lives today
(apart from some iPhone, Android, and Windows phone apps), out to
devices like that Harman Kardon speaker, or to
next-generation cars from companies like Nissan

microsoft windows 10 cortana
Cortana on Windows

Matt Weinberger/Business

The deal with Nissan is a great example of what Microsoft is
going for, says Gavin. As cars get smarter, going from driver
assist features today to full self-driving capabilities over the
years to come, there are going to be more chances for people to
be productive in the car.

It’ll be a while before you’ll want to take your hands off the
wheel fully. But Microsoft sees Cortana as the most natural
interface for getting stuff done in the car, given that she’s
hooked into most of the business software you’d be using at your
desk anyway.

“Your car becomes an extension of your office,” Gavin says.


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