Microsoft’s Cortana strategy is currently uncertain

Coming off Alexa’s Windows 10 announcement, pundits have seen this as a challenge to Microsoft’s own homegrown virtual assistant Cortana on its home turf –the Windows PC. With the lack of a mobile platform, one could argue that Windows 10 is the only platform where Cortana sees any use. Yet, Microsoft attempted to change that perception at last year’s CES, featuring news about smart speakers and integration into the car with its Connected Vehicle Platform. Microsoft aimed to debut more news on that going forward, with a preview of its CVP supposedly arriving later in the year.

Like most things at CES, the reality was less tantalising than the initial promise.

Take the announcement of the Harmon Kardon speaker, Microsoft announced opening up Cortana to smart speakers in January, and the Harmon Kardon Invoke speaker in May 2017, yet the Invoke remains the only smart speaker currently available. More speakers may very well be announced this CES, we don’t know, but with CES often being a place to launch vapourware, it is often wiser to wait until these things actually ship. There’s also a thermostat which looks pretty good, but let’s be real here, its a thermostat, hardly the cornerstone of a winning strategy.

In contrast to the shambles that is Microsoft’s Cortana home strategy, Google’s Assistant is supported not only on the Google Home brand of smart speakers but also in a variety of other devices from Sony, JBL, Panasonic and so on.

So also Amazon’s Alexa assistant is supported on a bevy of Amazon Echo branded smart speakers, and speakers from Sonos, LG and ironically Harmon Kardon (not to mention support for cars, smart home devices and so on and so forth).

This slow roll-out is par for the course with Microsoft, who announced Cortana integration with Skype in 2016  and didn’t ship an actual usable product till 2017.  A product, which turned out to be forgettable in the end for the most part (even if only due to the rejection of the new Skype app by users).

It seems that, for the most part, Microsoft isn’t sure what it wants to do with Cortana which debuted as a Windows Phone virtual assistant, much like Siri on the iPhone upon release.

On the one hand, Microsoft presents itself as the cool, aloof kid. It doesn’t really want Cortana to be a Siri clone, it wants Cortana to be part of its services that form a bridge between all your devices with your Windows PC as its centre. You can use your Android phone and Google Assistant if you want, but Cortana will be passing data from your phone to your PC, both notifications, images and more so you can be productive. On the other hand, it also wants Cortana to be in your car, and on your smart speaker, and to run on your Android phone and iPhone (but mostly the former). and Windows PC.

There are a few ways that Microsoft could improve Cortana usage to reach the second goal, but none that will create a short-term boost, with a long-term outlook unclear. The firm could aim to roll the service out worldwide, to at least match Google’s Assistant and Siri. In service to this, Microsoft could also improve support for Bing globally, to make it more than a running joke and more of a global product. It’s hard to sell your digital assistant to Japan or Ghana when its built for the USA. Microsoft could also stand to do more with the Cortana Skills platform, which currently sports 250-300 skills, when Alexa has 25, 000 at its disposal. [Update: This article erroneously reported 250, 000, the typo has been fixed]

It would be trivial to say that Microsoft should work with more manufacturers of smart speakers and cars to integrate Cortana in their systems because one would expect the firm is already doing that.

As it stands now, what is clear is that Cortana is now falling behind for consumers, and Amazon’s Alexa app wasn’t the start of that, just another step.

Microsoft would be better served to see Cortana as a connective tissue, as a framework for people who want to get serious work done, and for business users. Last weekend, Microsoft announced a better integration for Cortana with Dynamics CRM, with a focus “on building a new long-term intelligent solution experience, which will include Cortana digital assistant integration.”

While ideally for Microsoft, people would want to use Cortana on all devices all the time, that’s unlikely. Siri and Google Assistant have found a home on phones and Microsoft’s poor performance in the smart home department combined with Amazon’s mindshare in that market means that Amazon’s Alexa has already won that war before it has even started.The time for Microsoft to dominate with Cortana in the home market has passed, now the firm needs to look inside and focus on its strengths before it loses what few advantages it already has.

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