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Cortana’s got mad skills but faces big distribution challenges vs. rivals
Cortana already has 148 million global users, but it's still an underdog.
During its San Francisco event last week, Microsoft showcased AI-driven innovations for Office 365 and Bing. It also highlighted a range of new Cortana skills and capabilities.
Among other things, the company announced what it called “skills chaining.” This involves the suggestion and connection of multiple voice-enabled actions in succession to accomplish some intended task. The example demonstrated at the event was searching for concert tickets, purchasing them and then adding the date to multiple users’ calendars — all via voice through Cortana without a screen.
As Microsoft was developing Bing years ago, it discovered that search queries were not isolated events but typically directed toward completion of a larger task or multiple related tasks (e.g., travel planning). While Bing didn’t ultimately differentiate from Google along those lines, the company is trying to reflect that real-world behavior in Cortana’s design and functionality.
Skills chaining is also a way for developers to get their voice apps discovered. This sort of contextual discovery will be required because “skills stores” or “voice app stores” at this point are almost completely ineffective as a discovery mechanism.
Microsoft additionally showcased the integration of Cortana into the Outlook mobile app (including for iOS), which will send notifications with directions, transit and traffic/arrival information. Cortana can also “sort emails and provide a summary of the most important ones,” including combining emails from Gmail and Outlook into a single read-out.
This was all impressive; and the combination of the personal and professional is part of Microsoft’s differentiation strategy vs. Google and Apple. However, because Cortana doesn’t have its own mobile platform, it faces major adoption hurdles.
At Microsoft’s annual developer conference earlier this year, the company announced a number of milestones, which it has since updated:
- 500+ million monthly active Windows 10 users
- 120 million commercial users of Office 365
- 148 million monthly active users of Cortana (across all platforms)
Cortana is being integrated across all major Microsoft properties (Windows, Office 365, Edge, Skype, Xbox) and third-party platforms where it has an opening (Outlook for iOS, Android). Despite all this, it’s still a significant underdog in the assistant market and will need to aggressively innovate and outperform rivals to gain mass adoption. (Microsoft would argue it already has that.)
The fact that Microsoft doesn’t have its own mobile platform — that it has to “colonize” iOS and Android — and the fact that it currently doesn’t have meaningful distribution on smart speakers (save the Harman Kardon Invoke) are major challenges. Furthermore, Google Assistant, Alexa and Cortana all have third-party device SDKs. This creates additional barriers for Cortana to gain much traction on third-party devices, which are more likely to go with Alexa or Google.
Compared with Siri and Alexa, Cortana may well be the most competitive against Google Assistant. But, like Bing vs. Google search, it will need to work twice as hard to gain attention and usage.