Ex-Microsoft engineer reveals the mistake which let the Amazon Alexa run away with the market

The Amazon Alexa is actually slightly younger than Cortana but in terms of mind share and usage, the earlier device is miles ahead of Microsoft’s voice assitant, with no real sign of catching up.

Now in an interview with Wired legendary engineer Qi Lu, previously Executive Vice President at Microsoft working in Cortana, Bing, Skype and Office, and a major force in their  AI initiative,  revealed the key mistake Microsoft made which handed Amazon the market.

“I worked on Cortana four and a half years ago. At the time we all were like, “Amazon, yeah, that technology is so far behind.” But one thing I learned is that in this race to AI, it’s actually more about having the right application scenarios and the right ecosystems.

Google and Microsoft, technologically, were ahead of Amazon by a wide margin. But look at the AI race today. The Amazon Alexa ecosystem is far ahead of anybody else in the United States. It’s because they got the scenario right. They got the device right. Essentially, Alexa is an AI-first device.

Microsoft and Google made the same mistake. We focused on Cortana on the phone and PC, particularly the phone. The phone, in my view, is going to be, for the foreseeable future, a finger-first, mobile-first device. You need an AI-first device to solidify an emerging base of ecosystems.”

The statement carries two messages. One is that the PC can not be all things to all people and that Microsoft needs application-specific hardware and software.  The other is a similar – that a company needs to develop for a clear use case and make sure these things work well, and that would often be enough to take the market, especially if you are early or first.

This was the case with the iPhone, which was a very poor phone, but which got mobile web browsing very right from the start. Unfortunately, this once again argues against trying to make the PC and Windows 10 all things for all people – something Microsoft is increasingly pushing for with Windows tablets, the Xbox One and of course phone.

Of course, Microsoft is trying to find a way out of this bind by offering their services to third parties, such as the HK Invoke, but this separation of function and 3rd party form is unlikely to make for very good integration.

As the famous quote goes – if you are serious about making good software you have to make good hardware. Microsoft, of course, has difficulties on both fronts, but until they can resolve these they will keep losing out to companies who have mastered that skill.

Read Lu’s full interview here.

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