You may have caught a glimpse of Microsoft’s teaser for its Amazon Echo competitor the other day. It’s a Harman Kardon speaker running Cortana that aims to take on not just the Echo, but also the likes of Google Home and whatever Samsung eventually comes out with running Bixby (besides the Galaxy S8 of course). But against such fierce competition, does Microsoft’s digital assistant speaker stand a chance?
In short: absolutely. But there are quite a few things to consider when trying to predict how well a virtual assistant product will do on the market. First, there are the obvious things, like the quality and feature-set of the virtual assistant itself and the hardware in which it exists.
Then there are other less obvious aspects like compatibility with other devices, price points, form factors and other barriers to entry. And then there’s the issue of the openness of the platform to third-party developers and manufacturers, which can have an immense impact on its growth.
With these things in mind, how well is Microsoft’s Cortana speaker going to stack up? Google Assistant will likely always have the edge on search, and Amazon has a massive array of skills and third-party integrations already thanks to being first to market. Microsoft’s product design, which reeks of the Amazon Echo, isn’t going to differentiate it, so what secret weapons does Microsoft have?
Google Assistant will likely always have the edge on search, and Amazon has a massive array of skills and third-party integrations already.
Cortana vs the competition
The thing with digital assistants housed in speakers is that, like most things in life, it’s essentially what’s inside that counts. No one really buys a virtual assistant speaker based on looks. If they did, Google wouldn’t stand a chance (air freshener burn!). But Google Home still has a very good chance at being the dominant speaker in years to come, because Google. That is, until Apple releases some overpriced home AI product.
But if you were to ask me for a gut-reaction to which virtual assistant is best, I wouldn’t put Cortana at the top of the list, but it probably wouldn’t be at the bottom either. Of course, depending on what you use your digital assistant for, your mileage may vary: everyone has their preferred digital assistant for their own particular reasons.
Preference for an AI assistant boils down to two things: the quality of its voice recognition and enhanced functionality.
But ultimately, that preference boils down to two things: voice recognition and enhanced functionality. A virtual assistant is no good if it can’t understand you or is incapable of doing much.
Unfortunately, Microsoft’s teaser don’t exactly inspire us with confidence. The only ‘skills’ shown in the short video are playing a song and setting a reminder. This is not the stuff of AI dreams.
Let’s face it, as important as the virtual assistant inside the product is, the hardware in which it is encased also matters. But not necessarily just for what it looks or sounds like, but also for what choices it offers. Microsoft, perhaps recognizing Cortana’s current weaknesses, has wisely identified that limiting Cortana’s home-assistant life to one product would put it in a very tough position.
Not only would it have to have better (or at least comparable) software abilities when compared to Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, it would also have to be a better speaker than both of them. Partnering with Harmon Kardon certainly gives Microsoft’s first swing at bat a much better chance of outdoing the competition on audio quality. But why stop there?
This is where Microsoft diverges from the competition. That is because the speaker teased in the video isn’t a Microsoft product per se. It is a Harmon Kardon product that runs Cortana, much like a Dell PC running Windows. This is a critical difference.
Microsoft will only have third-party products running Cortana: the same approach it traditionally took to getting Windows on PCs.
Microsoft won’t make hardware
While Amazon and Google have released their own branded speakers running their own digital assistants, Microsoft will come out of the gate with only third-party products. This is the same way it traditionally approached hardware and software for computers (before the Surface, that is). These new products won’t just be relegated to speakers either: a recently-leaked Microsoft slide shows Cortana will live inside a wide range of household consumer products next year.
Of course, there are already third-party Alexa-powered devices available, but they tend to be less fully-featured when compared to Amazon’s own hardware (requiring a tap before speaking commands for example). They also tend to be cheaper and nastier than Amazon’s offerings, clearly pitching them beneath Amazon’s own products. And as far as I’m aware, there isn’t an Alexa-powered fridge in the pipeline.
Microsoft, Google and Amazon have all opened their platforms up to third-party developers.
Meanwhile, Google indicated way back at I/O that it was working with various audio companies on third-party speakers as vehicles for Google Assistant. But it seems to be prioritizing giving its own hardware a head start first, because we’ve not heard anything more on that front since May.
Both Google and Amazon have already opened their platforms up to third-party developers, just as Microsoft has done this week.
By opening up the Cortana Devices SDK to anyone that wants to include Cortana in their connected products, Microsoft is taking a two-pronged approach: get an uncrippled version of Cortana into as many products as possible, and remove itself from the hardware side of things as much as possible. This is important, because as mentioned above, Microsoft is going to need all the help it can get.
To get an idea of how Microsoft’s approach might pan out, just think of the distribution model of iOS vs Android. With Home, Echo and Dot, Google and Amazon released their own device running their own software with very little choice for consumers. This is Apple’s approach with the iPhone. It’s essentially take it or leave it.
Microsoft hasn't made an Echo competitor so much as asked others to do it on their behalf.
On the other hand, Microsoft will allow basically anyone that wants to use its software to do so, much like Google did with Android. So Microsoft hasn’t made an Echo competitor so much as it is getting others to create those products on its behalf, covering a much wider product portfolio than it could ever hope to manage on its own.
That’s not to say that making Cortana open to all OEMs and ODMs that wish to incorporate it means Cortana will suddenly become the Android of virtual assistants. Far from it. If Google does start releasing third-party speakers at the high end and Amazon continues its low-end Alexa-powered expansion, Microsoft will be squeezed from both sides.
For Microsoft to really compete against the cheap, third party-friendly and very capable Alexa products, Microsoft needs Cortana-powered products at the high and low end of the scale. Fortunately, Microsoft won’t cannibalize its own sales by doing so as it is strictly focused on getting Cortana out there. But if Microsoft wants to compete against the power of Google Assistant it really needs to beef up its software.
This is the crux of the software issue: Microsoft can’t just settle on letting manufacturers slap Cortana inside their products and hope for the best thanks to greater numbers. After all, Apple successfully proved one iPhone was enough to compete with the multitude of Android options.
Not having to focus on hardware means Microsoft can invest all of its time and resources into making Cortana better.
No, if Microsoft wants to join the voice assistant speaker over a year late it needs to bring something new and fresh and compelling. Not having to focus on hardware so much means that Microsoft can invest all of its time and resources into making Cortana the best-in-class assistant for whatever hardware it appears in.
Thankfully, Microsoft recently achieved human parity in conversational voice recognition and has confirmed it will make its way into Cortana. This is hugely important, as speech recognition has always been Cortana’s weak spot. The recent update to the Cortana app also shows Microsoft is actively working on more than just the back end too, which is equally encouraging.
A display has already been ear-marked as a requirement for third-party manufacturers to incorporate Cortana into their products. While this might sound novel, Amazon is already rumored to be working on an Alexa device with a large screen. So Microsoft won’t be able to stand out there.
Likewise, knowing you can buy the toaster, fridge, speaker and washing machine you like and have them all support Cortana is a bonus, but having multiple devices that all do the same thing isn’t necessarily a killshot either. (That said, planning multiple devices that all feature a fully featured Cortana is definitely a wise move.)
But Microsoft might have another secret weapon up its sleeve, one very close to its heart: voice controlling your Windows computer. A recent Windows 10 insider preview build includes the ability to wake your PC, put it to sleep, lock it, and change the volume, all with your voice alone. These powers and more will roll out officially in the Windows 10 Creators update scheduled for early 2017.
Microsoft might have a secret weapon up its sleeve if recently leaked plans for a Microsoft Home Hub pan out.
But it might not just be one way control, if recently leaked plans for a Microsoft Home Hub pan out. If these rumors are true, you won’t even need to go out and buy a Cortana-powered product to handle all your voice assistant needs in the home: your existing Windows 10 PC will be able to assume that role. All it will take is a software patch, which may well be a part of the Creators update.
There are numerous barriers to entry in this space: price, product range, maturity of the platform, perceived need for what is ultimately an unnecessary if-not-entirely ‘luxury’ product, compatibility and so on. But if Microsoft rolls out its Home Hub for free to gadgets people already have in their homes, it bypasses several of those traditional obstacles.
Make it free
Betting your PC against an Echo speaker or Google Home is a much safer bet than competing on even ground. Microsoft must know that rolling out a free update to add super-charged AI features to your existing Windows 10 computer is a great way to introduce people to what the new Cortana can do.
Once folks have had the chance to try out Cortana’s voice assistant powers in the home will make convincing them to buy into the Cortana product ecosystem a much easier sell. Making multiple other products available without crippling them to push one’s own hardware first is also a huge plus. This might just be the way Microsoft manages to turn up late and still come out with a healthy piece of the pie.
We don’t know if we’ll see Microsoft’s Cortana-powered speaker or any other products revealed at CES or MWC, but we’ll absolutely be keeping an eye on Microsoft’s plans in this space. We may end up being totally wrong with what Microsoft has planned for its Cortana ecosystem, but what at first looked like a weak Echo clone might suddenly turn into real competition for Amazon and Google in your home.
Would you prefer your computer to take the place of a Echo or Home? Who do you think will come out on top?