Microsoft is a big name in the technology industry. With the evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT), the company is riding on the tech wave to launch related services. One of them is virtual assistant Cortana, which competes head-to-head with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant in a smart home environment.
Microsoft is a latecomer in the smart home market. While Amazon and Google have rolled out a series of smart speakers, the Windows creator has but introduced one – Harman Kardon Invoke, six months ago. Amazon Alexa is well ahead in regards to its vast number of skills available to perform various tasks.
This does not mean Microsoft has lost the race completely. In fact, Microsoft has some advantages that may grant it a comeback in the IoT industry. The company may find a more open space to deploy its solutions in the office.
“This is a newly evolving space, and there is lots of potential for innovation and widespread opportunity for smart speaker manufacturers in both consumer markets, enterprise, and various verticals,” said Shay Kamin Braun, a product marketing manager of Qualcomm, which recently released the industry-first smart speaker development platform supporting Microsoft Cortana for manufacturers.
While Alexa-compatible devices are becoming common in residential homes, Microsoft’s Windows and Office Suite are already like the standard systems in the business world. If offices are to become smart, Microsoft is likely in the best position to see its realization.
There seems to be opportunities in the smart office application. Microsoft is not the only player in the field. Amazon launched Alexa for Business, and Cisco introduced Spark Assistant to facilitate the meeting process. But why not just use solutions from Microsoft, which is already universal in today’s companies?
“Compared with Alexa and Google Assistant, Cortana is tailored more for business users. Big companies uses Microsoft’s systems for business applications like human resource management and security control. If they are going to add voice control, it’s probably a Microsoft solution,” said B.K. Liu, product marketing manager of Jazz Hipster Corp., a smart speaker and voice control solution provider based in Taiwan.
Elevator with Cortana integration is one example. Otis recently showcased at World Elevator Expo a prototype featuring Cortana. “That demonstration responded to a variety of passenger questions related to using voice to initiate a request to travel to a particular floor, the location of services in the building, weather and music preferences,” said Chris Smith, Otis VP of Service Innovation.
Compatible with Windows and Office Suite
The first advantage of Cortana, compared with other assistants, is its close integration with Windows and Office softwares. The voice assistant is pre-installed on computers running on the Windows 10 operation system. It allows users to set reminders, get weather updates, check the traffic, and search information, among other functionalities. The search will be done via Bing, and webpages will pop up with Microsoft Edge.
Integration with Office 365 allows Cortana to notify workers of special events, changes in meeting time, and even set timers to remind colleague to attend a meeting.
“By integrating with Office 365, Cortana can proactively help you prepare for an upcoming meeting,” Microsoft said in a statement. “Cortana brings you helpful information about the people you’re meeting with, recent documents they’ve worked on, and reminders about when and where you need to be next so you won’t be late.”
The voice assistant also works with email applications to make life easier for office workers. With Cortana, users can check if they have new emails in Outlook with their voice. Cortana will then read you a list of unread messages, including who it is from and the subject. Users may even reply to emails with their voice.
Email and Skype Integration
In addition, Gmail may be connected to Cortana, to let it access emails, calendar and contact information in the Google account. Besides Windows 10, users may use Cortana from smart speaker Harman Kardon Invoke to access the emails.
Another advantage of Cortana is its integration with Skype, which again, is a common application in the office. With Skype integration, you can make calls to cellphones, landlines and other Skype-enabled devices. This is one of the features that set Cortana-powered Harman Kardon Invoke apart from other smart speakers in the market, according to Michael Mauser, President of Lifestyle Audio Division at Harman.
While Invoke is the only smart speaker supporting Cortana in the market today, Harman remains optimistic about its potential. “Cortana is used by more than 145 million people across devices and platforms, and voice-Controlled devices are expected to grow to an overall market value exceeding US$7 billion by 2024,” Mauser said.
Invoke was launched only in the U.S., and sales have met the target, according to Mauser. “We are working on plans to launch Invoke in markets outside the U.S.” Invoke is also favored by those who are familiar with Microsoft ecosystem and office productivity suite of technologies, Mauser added.
At Microsoft’s Build event held in May, the company demonstrated how the company might facilitate meeting in the future. A cone-shaped device appeared to be both hearing and seeing its surrounding. It identifies people as meeting attendants come into the room. Cortana greets each person by their first name as they walk into the room, and when it sees the leader, it will ask him or her if the meeting should be started.
After the meeting is started, Microsoft’s conference solution Surface Hub begins to transcribe the conversation and take notes of key tasks. Real-time translation is also performed for a co-worker based in another country.
Ability to Understand Commands
What is common among all the voice assistants is that they are constantly being improved to understand human languages better. “When we initially launched with Cortana you had to be exact. ‘Turn off my lounge light” might work, but ‘please set my lounge light off’ would not. I assume this is something all voice assistants are striving to do,” said Marc Alexander, Chief Product and Technology Officer at LIFX.
The ability to understand syntax, to comprehend voice commands accurately is very important. It makes it easy for the majority of users who don’t like to repeat commands or be misinterpreted. While Google is considered by many to be the best in language comprehension, the second place may not be so certain.
Piotr Orzechowski, CEO of Infermedica, which developed Cortana skill Symptomate, says Cortana is more accurate in identifying phrases compared with Alexa. Symptomate will tell users possible causes for their illness, based on the symptoms users said they have. “When you say, I’m coughing, it will precisely transcribe your voice as ‘coughing,’ not the drink ‘coffee.’ That’s the kind of mistake we are working on with Alexa,” Orzechowski said.
Cortana also supports more languages – English, German, Italian, Spanish, French, Simplified Chinese, Portuguese and Japanese. Alexa currently supports English, French, German and Japanese only.
Available across Devices
The last and more obvious advantage that Cortana has over other voice assistants is the wide range of devices it can operate on. Besides computer and smart speaker, it runs on Windows Phone, iOS and Android phones as well as Xbox One. Although Cortana is not available on the most number of devices, it is functional on most device types.
“Our vision is to put Cortana everywhere you need assistance to get things done… You can expect Cortana to continue to grow across devices and platforms and deliver new skills and capabilities through our third party partners,” Microsoft says.