Recess is Over
Back in 1997 through the early oughts ABC aired one of my favorite cartoons. (Yes even in my twenties I enjoyed an animated series or two or three, maybe four. Ummm…I digress) “Recess” was a light, somewhat, nostalgic romp through the escapades of elementary school children. The premise of the cartoon focused particularly on following the shenanigans of a tight knit group of elementary school students. During one particularly memorable episode amusingly titled- “Me No Know”- the perpetually cool, always “with-it”, athletically endowed character, Vince fell headlong from his cool status and descended to the dreaded outsider status as a result of missing a very popular movie. A movie that everyone else did see. Throughout the episode all of his classmates including his prepubescent besties acted out the scenes and repeated the lines from this latest cinematic blockbuster- dubbed Nitwitz 3- which Vince naturally could not do, because he did not see the movie.
As the episode progressed, Vince was consistently reminded that he was not part of the mainstream- that he had missed the boat- as his peers persistently reenacted scene after scene and quoted lines from this movie that Vince knew nothing about. Weary of his outsider status and in defiance to his parents Vince surreptitiously sneaks into the theater over the weekend to see the movie. With notebook in hand he diligently records notes throughout the film to ensure that he is adequately equipped with all of the cool movie quips that his peers had previously perfected.
Come Monday morning Vince is on his game as he walks into the class. He is pimping the movies characters motions, slinging out one liners and zingers and closes out his one man Nitwitz 3 rendition with the signature line – “Me No Know”. The classroom stares at him in silence. His buddy TJ puts a caring arm around his shoulder, commends his efforts but lets him know that Nitwitz 3 is no longer “in”. Another character chimes in, stating that there is a new television program that is now “it”. Vince, though his preparation on point, his efforts commendable and his persistence praiseworthy, was too late – everyone else was on to the next big thing.
Can We Play
This Spring Microsoft will be debuting their latest update, or more appropriately, their latest overhaul, to their smartphone OS. Windows Phone 8.1, courtesy of the deluge of leaks that have hit the web since almost two weeks ago and have been trickling from the twitter accounts and blogs of those privy to the matter, looks to be one massive and very commendable effort from the Windows Phone team. Kudos to the team for adding to the 8.1 SDK much desired features such as a Notification Center, part of a more comprehensive Action Center, separate volume controls, background image capabilities for the home screen, the ability to install apps to an SD card, an improved calendar with integrated weather and a new week view, swipe down to close apps(like Windows 8), swype keyboard, WiFi enhancements, geofenceing and so much more. The list literally does go on and on. It would be hard to find any Windows Phone fan that is not excited about the list of coming and potential features. Yet despite all of the excitement, the praises, and the extensive and impressive list of improvements, one thing must be remembered – Windows Phone 8.1 will not be being debuting in a vacuum.
BARRIERS TO SUCCESS
The Big Dogs
Apple, Google and Samsung are also occupying this space that Windows Phone 8.1 will be introduced into; and 2014 promises to be a big year for all of the big players. Yes big players indeed. Let’s put things into perspective. In the mobile space Microsoft’s contenders are so vast in comparison to the Redmond company’s representation in the mobile arena that it’s not hard to conceive that Apple, Google and Samsung may actually perceive Microsoft’s attempts at mobile relevance as a mere annoyance rather than a real threat to their dominance in the market. With android commanding just about 80%, of the market(led by Samsung) and Apple raking in approximately 17%, Microsoft is scraping the bottom, quite literally targeting and having its greatest success, where Apple refuses to get it’s hands dirty – on the low end. In three years time Microsoft, owing much to Nokia, has been able to grab almost 4% of the global market. No small feat, but this meager piece of the global pie does place Microsoft dreadfully close to being obscured beneath the feet of the mobile giants Apple, Google and Samsung.
First Up – ‘Droid Rage
Consider Google. The Mountain View company, in collusion with a variety of OEM’s and the behemoth Samsung is duly represented with Android on the bottom tier of the market with devices such as the quite affordable Moto G. The company also has it’s place on the high end, being strongly represented with iPhone contenders such as the vastly popular Samsung Galaxy line of phones and phablets. Today Monday 2/24/14 Samsung debuted the fifth device in it’s very popular Galaxy S line – the Galaxy S5. With specs such as an eye popping 1,920 x 1080 5.1” high resolution Super AMOLED display, a water and dustproof body, a 16 megapixel shooter, a fingerprint scanner, a health focused heart rate sensor combined with it’s proprietary S Health 3.0, a host of other nifty Samsung tricks and of course access to the 1 million apps in the Google Play store, Samsung is likely to continue it’s trend of producing very popular, highly desirable and highly successful, high-end Android smartphones. People are going gaga over these Google powered gadgets.
Naturally the blogosphere will be ablaze with heated coverage of this device, and consumers interest ignited as news of the next iteration of a brand Samsung has been successful in establishing reaches the mainstream. Consumers conversations will be consumed with talk of the S5, word will be passed. Decisions about ones next device will be considered. Plans will be made. Without a doubt, the deluge of coverage and interest around the web regarding Windows Phone 8.1 will cool and likely peter to a slow drip. Just to add insult to injury it is rumored that Samsung’s new tablets, which are also launching this year will be sporting Magazine UX. Just a reminder, Magazine UX is a tile based user interface that displays live data like Windows Phone/Windows Metro’s interface. As another nod from the android camp to Microsoft’s popular UI, HTC’s next device will be continuing its use of HTC Blink Feed which also mimics Microsoft’s Metro interface.
Finally, Samsung will also be dropping new “Gear” on the market in the form their Gear 2 and Gear Neo smartwatches. Though powered by Samsung’s homegrown Tizen OS, rather than Google’s Android, this is Samsung’s second foray into the smartwatch realm and is more refined, promises greater flexibility and targets a category where Microsoft in noticeably absent.
Samsung Cares About Your Health
In a surprise move to supplement it’s health focused direction which it has imbued into it’s new flagship, the Galaxy S5, which incorporate S Health 3.0, a pedometer, a heart rate scanner, diet and exercise recording and what Samsung claims is a comprehensive fitness tracker to help users monitor and track their behavior, Samsung has also launched it’s sleek curved glass designed Gear Fit fitness band. The gyroscope, accelerometer and heart rate sensor equipped accessory with built-in apps and third party support is an affordable option to deliver up notifications from ones prized Galaxy devices while helping to keep users fit.
The Galaxy S5 will also be delivering it’s millions of potential purchasers an improved 16 megapixel shooter. In heated competition to smartphone camera leader Nokia, Samsung has equipped its new shooter with what is touted as the worlds fastest autofocus, advanced High Dynamic Range, selective focus(focus on a specific area of a subject while blurring the background) and editing software similar to Nokia’s implementation where the photo can be taken and then the editing mode can be selected post shoot.
No, Windows Phone 8.1 will not be debuting in a vacuum. Actually it will, once released, be contending with new and popular devices sporting an OS which is vastly more popular in the market, and products which may also be copying one of Windows Phone’s most distinctive features in Magazine UX and HTC Blink. And with the smartwatch and Gear Fit as companions to some of Samsung devices, with the additional focus on health and wellness, user lock-in in the Android eco-system will be an even more difficult connection for Microsoft to break.
Round Two – The Big Apple
As if one titan was not enough. Let’s not forget about Apple. Yes Apple, the crafter of those exquisitely elegant luxury devices. Love them or hate them Apple knows three things. They know beauty, they know how to iterate on what works, maintaining a focus on core features, working toward perfection; and finally they know marketing. They are the undisputed Zen masters at conveying to the masses that they provide the epitome of mobile offerings. Their marketing team is so talented they are able to innovate a message (while the design team is iterating the device) that makes even the most mundane changes seem noteworthy. Through savy marketing, they are keen at keeping the public’s focus, commitment and trust in the company, even when they are not doing anything innovative or groundbreaking – until they actually do do something innovative and groundbreaking. And for the company that reinvented the smartphone and made the tablet computer mainstream, it quite frankly was only a matter of time, according to many, before they wowed the world again. This year, 2014, I believe Apple is going to leave the world slack jawed once again. Here’s why.
Seeds of Success
Apple is reported to have made some very interesting hires and partnerships around design and health. Now combine this with reports of an all-American homegrown sapphire manufacturing plant in Mesa, Arizona. Add to that reports that Apple is working on their own version of a Smartwatch (iWatch?). Now couple all of this with rumors that the display of the next iteration of the iPhone will utilize highly durable scratch resistant sapphire. Round this all off by contemplating the possibility that Apple may finally be capitulating to market demand and actually be producing a larger display iPhone, possibly up to 5.2”(maybe two versions). Finally consider that Apple themselves have reported that this year, 2014, that they will be releasing multiple devices.
Now I know that’s a lot of speculation, based primarily on the tech rumor mill. Apple as we all know is passionately secretive. However most tech watchers I believe would concur that Apple is planning a new category defining move this year with their Smartwatch. One may argue that the Pebble, Martian, Samsung Galaxy Gear and the like have already entered the Smartwatch arena to I’d say, eh, tepid, consumer response. But isn’t this how Apple does things? They never really have to be the first. Others made tablets and smartphones before Apple joined the party after all. Apple simply wants to be the best.
Where other companies have focused primarily on making their smartwatches a reflection of or an easily accessed window to their smartphones, Apple I think is going another route. Let’s first talk about form. Most smartwatches on the market now are rather clunky looking. There are some exceptions, I’ll admit, that are rather sleek. But for the most part, considering the design, they still cater to the geeks. Guy’s like, well most of us that are reading this, that probably had a Casio Data Bank watch in the 80’s. Guy’s who have to have the latest gadgets. Pretty much they cater to guys who care more about function even if form must suffer. A niche group; one focused on geeks; and more specifically guy geeks. Apple doesn’t focus on the geeks. They want everyone. (Well everyone willing to pay a premium for an Apple product that is.) Again they’re willing to let others pioneer a product. Apple is fully content mainstreaming a product. They successfully mainstreamed the smartphone that existed for years dominated by the likes of Microsoft. They successfully mainstreamed the tablet, a device again that was pioneered by companies like Microsoft. I believe that this year, 7 years(the biblical number of completion, or perfection) after the category busting introduction of the iPhone, Apple is going big, really big with an iWatch.
Beauty in Design
What will this watch be that some other smartwatches are not? One – a thing of beauty. As stated above Apple has forged some alliances with individuals gifted in accessory design. This coupled with Apples own artistic talents(just look at their devices) the iWatch, I’m betting, will look like something not only geeks, but everyone will want to wear. A unisex device is likely the direction the company will go for manufacturing efficiency, but I would not be surprised if they offered a version for the guys and the gals. Now if aesthetics, or form, were the main selling point, “cool”, would be my response but it’s the anticipated function that elicits the “wow”.
And It’s Smart Too
There have been reports that the iWatch will be device that proactively monitors the wearers health. Ok so, a beautiful, sleek device that looks cool while you’re wearing it, that reportedly will warn you if you’re at risk for a heart attack and also measures other aspects of your health (our health of course is important to us), yes that’s a great selling point. Imagine if you will the marketing perspective. It is nearly impossible to watch television, pick up a magazine, stand in a grocery store checkout line, listen to the radio, hear a news report, or even talk to a friend or co-worker without seeing or hearing something about health or dieting. Commercials, infomercials, reality shows, talk show topics, book promotions all inundate us incessantly with messages reminding us about how unhealthy we are. Our First Lady, Michelle Obama, has even taken the banner of a “healthier you” to both American children and adults. Apple will likely use this mass perception of ourselves and offer us an aid in our battle for a healthier “me”, a solution, a device, supported by Siri, that will help us to be diligent stewards of our health where our good intentions, usurped by distractions and lack of focus for the majority of us, have to this point failed to prevail.
Of course the Apple loving media will fully embrace thisdevice, this movement, and will supply for Apple round the clock, free advertisement as morning shows, midday news, evening news and late night programs all “cover” the iWatch. The media loves Apple. While watching Good Morning America not long ago, I noticed the news ticker informing the millions of GMA viewers that Apple was rumored to be producing a larger display iPhone. Rumored. Apple received news coverage on one of Americas most watched morning programs for a rumor of a coming large screen device. Nokia actually produced and released a 6” device with cutting edge specs, powered by Microsoft’s mobile OS several months ago, and to my knowledge GMA has yet to report on live television on the matter. No, Windows Phone 8.1 will not be debuting in a vacuum.
The media, because Apple is such a loved brand, and/or because of more biased reasons, consistently markets Apple via it’s coverage of the company and their products. Apple’s relationship with America as a whole and american media, courtesy of the influence of Steve Jobs and the companies successes with the iPhone and iPad, provides the company with almost ubiquitous advertising support.
Apples own marketing team may of course proactively seek to partner the company with health focused programs like the “Biggest Loser”, offering the use of the iWatch as a tool to assist the contestants on their weight loss journey. They were not shy after all with partnering with international fashion brand Burberry to shoot it’s Runway Show in an effort to market the iphone 5s’ 8 megapixel shooter. Gyms and fitness centers will likely use promotional contests offering an iWatch as a prize. Restaurants, schools, colleges and fitness gurus – everyone- will embrace this new weapon against obesity and poor health. Because the state of obesity and health concerns are so prevalent in America, Apple has what every good sales person needs, a ready problem that they can position their product to solve. Via this strategy I believe Apple is going to reinvent and mainstream the smartwatch.
It Takes Two – Double Team
That’s just the watch. Of course there is also the phone. Apple has promised that multiple devices will be launching this year. If the iWatch is one, then without fail the next iPhone(s) is/are the other. Reports have leaked that the next iphone(s) will be larger. If true, this move may stop the trickle of some Apple faithful to other OEMs that offer larger screen devices. Speaking of screens, as noted above, Apple is rumored to be possibly equipping their next iphone with a sapphire display. (They may even encase the device in sapphire, returning to “glass” and metal design, confident of it’s greater durability over glass.) Such a screen looks to be more durable than the very popular gorilla glass 3 currently used on many smartphones. This sapphire is also reported to be being produced right here in the old US of A. Way to pull on the heart strings Tim. Made in America. (Doesn’t really undo the fact that iphones are being produced by the millions in China – eh, but it’s something.)
Of course iOS8 will be coming down the pipe with all of it’s new bells and whistles; many of which will likely tie in quite nicely with the health and fitness focused nature of the iWatch. Apple’s care given to integrating software and hardware will likely translate to a tight integration of the iWatch to iOS8 and the iPhone. Yes when Apple does a smartwatch it won’t just show you your text messages, the time and various other alerts that are simply offloaded from your phone. The iWatch, based on rumor at this point, will likely function more like some futuristic, beautifully crafted cybernetic, intelligent extension of ones own anatomy, consciously reporting on the wearer’s all-important health status. No Windows Phone 8.1 will not be debuting in a vacuum, there are giants in the land.
Yet Microsoft believes that they are well able.
The Underdog – “Bottom of the Blogs”
Rest assured, the industry is watching Microsoft. Bloggers and tech analysts , are sitting, poised eagerly over their keyboards, salivating over an opportunity to sink razor sharp words, via reviews and assessments, into the final version of Windows Phone 8.1. Don’t let all the positive and excited coverage over the recent Windows Phone 8.1 leaks fool you. People love to dog the underdog. When the Lumia 900 launched and won best at CES, it was welcomed to wide acclaim. But as sales of the device failed to reflect the excitement over the device, pens like daggers dug deep into the lackings of Window Phone. Year after year this story has persisted. Praise has been given to the smooth, fast, light and reliable performance of the OS. Accolades have been poured onto the industrious designs of Nokia manufactured devices. Yet article after article, video after video, even in the wake of consistent improvements, presents that inescapable “but”. “Windows Phone is a maturing OS but lacks the finish of iOS and Android.” “Windows Phone has made great strides but the lack of apps hurts the platform.” Windows Phone 8.1 addresses the former(and to some degree the latter), the growth of the windows Phone Store with 240,000 apps and 80% of the top apps(and more are consistently being added), and 3rd party apps taking up much of the slack directly addresses the latter. Yet the Windows Phone story of praise and the persistent “but” has become almost rote over the years. Shifting gears to tell a tale that reflects a changing reality may be difficult for some. Again, Windows Phone 8.1 will not be debuting in a vacuum.
On the Sales Floor – “No, You Don’t Want That”
The final major barrier that I’ll address is what I’ll call the “access point”. Carrier stores such as ATT, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and the like are where the vast majority of consumers purchase their devices. The sales associates weld the power to influence the decision of the buyer. If the sales associate has a particular preference for a particular OS, that bias will likely make it’s way through into his/her sales pitch, deliberate or not. Now the pitch is made even easier when a consumer walks into the store with a particular device or OS in mind. iOS and Android dominate mobile mindshare. Herein lies the problem for Windows Phone. Few customers, in comparison to Android and iOS walk into a store looking for a Windows Phone. Apple with their luxury brand, polished OS, strong app and third party ecosystem have locked-in users clamoring for iPhones. Carriers actually promote their networks using the iPhone as the draw. Android, via Samsung and other popular devices, draw customers into carrier stores who are looking for the little green bot powered devices like the Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy S series devices, HTC branded phones or a host of other Android powered units. Few ask for a Windows Phone and when they do the associates have reportedly turned some customers toward the more popular Android or iOS devices. “No, you don’t want that, have you considered…?”
Part of this is due to the current features gap between Windows Phone and the dominate OS’s, which again the 8.1 update thoroughly addresses. Notification center? Check. Background images? Check. Digital assistant? Check. Feature after feature. Check, check check…The lack of certain apps, which is now closer than ever to resolution with the Windows Phone Store having achieved near parity with competitors with regards to having 80% of the most popular apps is the other. For everyday use, for most consumers, the app space has been filled to such a degree as to preclude an inferior smartphone user experience. So two major barriers have been and are being addressed – fundamental features of the OS (WP 8.1) and the app gap. One major problem still exists. Most people are not drawn into a carrier store looking specifically for a Windows Phone. The popularity of the Lumia 520/521 prepaid phones is more a testimony of most of those buyers looking specifically for an affordable phone rather than a Microsoft powered device. Microsoft needs a game changer. Something that makes people want a Windows Phone.
Game On – Microsoft
It is for this reason that Windows Phone 8.1 and particularly Cortana has to be revolutionary. Android’s and Apple’s combined market share of just about 97%, the imminent release of the highly regarded Android powered Galaxy S5, and new Galaxy tablets and the Gear 2 and Gear Neo smartwatches, the Gear Fit fitness band, the release of the next iteration of the iPhone with a potentially larger 5”+ sapphire display which may surpass the durability of every other display on the market, and the introduction of a category defining iWatch that Apple will likely be positioning to mainstream and take command of the smartwatch category; replicating it’s success and strategy in the smartphone and tablet arena, combined with a media that inherently supports Apple, a Blogosphere that is hard on Microsoft and carrier’s sales associates that are accused of dissuading customers interest in Windows Phones, will offer little space for a product that merely checks all of the pre-existing boxes in 2014.
It is to be noted that, Microsoft has not done a good job, not even a great job, they have done a truly amazing job with the Windows Phone 8.1 mobile OS overhaul. The depth of the update’s, changes and additions to Windows Phone run from the surface to the core of the OS. I, like most Windows Phone enthusiasts and tech watchers, are both impressed and excited about what Microsoft is doing. Having missed the boat on the mobile trend several years ago, Microsoft’s late mobile offering has been good, even great in many regards and in many aspects offering a superior experience than that offered by the dominant players in the mobile arena.
Windows Phones unique tile based UI which offers up live glanceable data on colorful dynamically updating moving tiles is a bold and useful , futuristic, departure from the static icon grid based UI used by the competition. The minimalistic user interface pioneered by Windows Phone, which has influenced the the likes of Apple’s iOS7, is both simple and comprehensive. The smooth, fast, fluid flow of the interface and the metro style apps offer an aesthetically pleasing as well as an efficient experience.
Integration with Microsoft services such as OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) allow users to save media and documents in one place, in the cloud, and access that information from any device, at any time, anywhere. Office Mobile, the mobile version of the worlds most popular Productivity Suite, is integrated, and accessed for free, in the Windows Phone OS allowing users to create, edit and view Word, Excel and OneNote documents and view and edit PowerPoint documents. Further integration with Microsoft’s globally popular XBOX brand is also a unique feature of the OS. Hardware innovations introduced by the likes of Nokia have introduced beautifully crafted devices pioneering cutting edge imaging technology, wireless charging, super-sensitive screens allowing users to operate thier beloved devices even with gloved hands and durable, solid polycarbonate bodies which offer a damage resistant build. Nokia did not stop with hardware design, but has also contributed a vast suite of growing software and services to the Windows Phone platform. Supporting it’s groundbreaking Pureview hardware, as expressed in the popular Lumia line like the 41megapixel Lumia 1020, is their imaging SDK which is made available to developers for the creation of innovative photography software. Other software and services offered by Nokia to the Lumia line are the likes of Here Maps, Here Drive, City Lens, Nokia Creative Studio, Nokia Camera and so many more.
Yes, it is not without cause that there are high satisfaction ratings for Windows Phones. There is justified reason for the excitement surrounding the Windows Phone experience. The faithful have been holding on to what we love, believing in the promise that Microsoft would indeed fill the gaps between our beloved tiled OS and the competition. Windows Phone 8.1 is that promised realized.
Watching and Taking Notes
Microsoft, having found itself the outsider, has obviously been diligently watching the competition and has taken serious note of what features and functions those competing OS’s possess. Features that their users flash so proudly at times, before Windows Phone users, whose fledgling OS reflects the reality that it’s maker, Microsoft, missed the boat and was late to the mobile game. Microsoft has taken their notes, and users requests and baked feature after lacking feature into the Windows Phone 8.1 OS. They have checked all of the boxes, then added some boxes and checked those too. But is it enough?
Reaching parity with the competition with fundamental under the hood OS level features is a wise and needed strategy that Microsoft has implemented. If the Windows Phone ecosystem is to grow, ensuring features that consumers may find mundane, yet which make the device enterprise ready and address a range of basic functionality is critical if Microsoft is to remain competitive. Features which are visible to users, beyond the under the hood improvements, which improve the user experience is also key to Microsoft’s strategy. The Windows Phone 8.1 update addresses both these areas.
What is not clear however is does the Windows Phone 8.1 Update address Microsoft’s greatest challenge? Will it make people want to buy a Windows Phone?
I Want! I Want! I Need! I Need! (It’s Not About Bob)
If there is a single stand out feature of the 8.1 update that has had enthusiasts buzzing – it is Cortana, Microsoft’s highly anticipated digital assistant. The buzz about Cortana began months ago and “she” has been described as being a comprehensive, personal, context aware digital assistant that would rival both Google’s Google Now and Apple’s Siri. Both these digital assistants have their shortcomings. Google Now has been described as intrusive and also lacks the personality of Siri. Siri is quite personal but not very useful for most in everyday life.
Cortana, which is named after the reliable, personal and useful AI to Master Chief from the very popular Xbox game Halo is claimed to be combining the strengths of it’s two competitors; bringing to the users a very personal, very useful context influenced experience. Cortana will be powered by Bing which also powers Facebook search which serves over 1 billion users, supports Yahoo Search, powers Siri on the millions of iPhones and iPads and exists as it’s own standalone search page and mobile apps for a variety of platforms. Of course Bing is also the default search engine on Windows Phone and Windows 8.1 for PCs and tablets as well as the line of Nokia feature, Asha and newly minted Nokia X phones. Bing commands about 17% of search market share. Microsoft’s partnership with Facebook in connecting social with Bing, along with the usage of Bing in others areas, has allowed and will continue to allow the devices and services company to collect a massive amount of general data(not specifics) on users behavior and other areas which will be a powerful resource for Cortana in delivering relevant information to users.
Bing’s Satori engine, Microsoft’s vast knowledgebase, which powers the search engine is also fed massive amounts of data from other Microsoft partners such as Yahoo, Foursquare, and LinkedIn. As a result, the amount of data available to Microsoft ‘s Cortana to serve users surpasses even that available to Google.
Steve Ballmer had this to say,
“Our machine-learning infrastructure will understand people’s needs and what is available in the world, and will provide information and assistance. We will be great at anticipating needs in people’s daily routines and providing insight and assistance when they need it.
When it comes to life’s most important tasks and events, we will pay extra attention. The research done, the data collected and analyzed, the meetings and discussions had, and the money spent are all amplified for people during life’s big moments.”
Bill Gate’s stated,
“As everyone gets essentially what we’d call the personal agent—it’s been talked about for decades and now really is possible—we see where you’re going, we see your calendar, we see your various communications, some of those communications we can actually look at the tags, look at the speech, try to be helpful to you in your activities,” Gates said. “I think that we will be more connected, so that when somebody wants to find a gift of a certain type, or take a trip in a certain way, that there will be a closer match.”
Microsoft has an opportunity via it’s vast resources in it’s Satori knowledge database, it’s social network partnerships and it’s decades long experience as a company that has made billions as a provider of software, services and support to hundreds of millions, to redefine the digital assistant category. Cortana is a software tool provided by Microsoft that will function as a portal and link for users to a vast repository of information, maintained by Microsoft, that will be relegated to users in a relevant and meaningful way to serve customers dynamically, where they are and as they need it. Microsoft knows software. Microsoft knows service. Cortana will be Microsoft serving their customers in a more personal and dynamic way than ever before. Additionally, based on leaks from the Windows Phone 8.1 SDK Cortana’s user interface will be simple, personal and interaction with “her” will be naturally facilitated by natural conversational speech. Exactly how we would expect to interact with an artificially intelligent digital assistant. To date digital assistants have been moderately useful through implementations like Google Now, and more or less useless, yet amusing, with applications like Siri. Cortana can be more. Cortana must be more.
Of all of the features, improvements and modifications coming to Windows Phone via Windows Phone 8.1, no feature, save the potential inherent in what Cortana needs to be, will drive the masses to the carriers stores crying, “I want a Windows Phone!” Cortana needs to be the revolutionary, not the evolutionary, digital assistant that Steve Ballmer promised.
Cortana needs to know who I am, where I am going where I have been, what I like, what I don’t like, who my friends are, where I work. “She” needs to know me. Yeah I know that sounds scary, creepy, TMI for a digital assistant. But if Microsoft is going to revolutionize this category, if they are going to change the game then they have to deliver on the promise Science Fiction has embedded in our collective conciousness of what an AI should be. AI’s such as HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or “Computer” from Star Trek, KITT from Knight Rider and most recently the all too human AI from the critically acclaimed Her, have all set our expectations of what an AI should be. When we get something less, like Google Now and Siri, we’re amused and grateful for their limited usefulness but we still feel, and know that the AI dream is not yet realized. We’re left disappointed. We want more.
I Think, I Think – I Can
To truly assist us in our daily lives a digital assistants must “know” who we are and how we live. Microsoft’s Satori engine powered Cortana is the first and only digital assistant with the fundamental seeds and necessary ingredients to deliver the true beginnings of what we will recognize as the AI dream come true. If anyone can offer the first true image of what looks like a thinking, “knowing”, context aware digital assistant – Microsoft can. Take this scenario for example, based on current technology available to Microsoft, if I am out of town Cortana should be able to quietly recommend a restaurant to me based on my location, knowing the time of day I usually eat and what I like to eat. After eating at the restaurant, and leaving the location(using Foursquare technology and geofenching) Cortana should be able to unobtrusively ask if I enjoyed the food at that location. Based upon my response Cortana can save the information making my assessment of the restaurant part of “her” memory, to remind me of the establishment should I be in the area in the future. Cortana should also be able to make my assessment of the restaurant available to my social network connections as a location that I would either recommend or discourage friends, based on their likes, to either try or avoid. And all of this should be done completely hands free just as receiving and responding to text messages is now on Windows Phone.
Scenarios like this available on a mobile device are not gimmicky, nor intrusive but truly useful. The possibilities are endless. Game changing. And for those concerned about privacy and find this level of involvement in ones personal activity uncomfortable and want to limit how much info you share with the AI, Microsoft thought of that(unlike Google). Yes via a Notebook function, the users have control over what type of personal information is stored on the device and made available for use by the AI.
Cortana should be Microsoft’s ace in the hole; it’s home run hitter. All of the other WP 8.1 updates should be Microsoft loading the bases, positioning the game winning play, and Cortana should be it’s game changing home run slugger to knock the ball out of the park. She needs to be the play that brings the game home and gets the crowd out of their seats, screaming in unabated excitement. The priest, the housewife, the single man, the teenager, the mechanic, the politician, the professional, the blue collar worker, the celebrity, the regular Joe, the school teacher, the fireman – everyone needs to be awed by Cortana. As reactions to a home run hit is indiscriminate of ones social status, income, race or creed, Cortana needs to excite the masses. It has to be the seeds of the future realized; the AI that knows us, assists us, serves us, a personal digital companion that operates just in the shadow of our lives offering useful support when needed. It needs to be the smartphone feature that makes people say, “I want that.”
While Apple and Samsung have gone all out in the direction of mobile health, what they are seeking to define as the “Next Big Thing”, Microsoft has an opportunity to take control of the message surrounding the digital assistant, an area where the giants are giving less focus. Microsoft can take the market by surprise and tell the world, they are not done with the digital assistant, that it is not yesterdays news, that Microsoft has been in a holding pattern perfecting the backend that will power the true implementation of an artificially intelligent digital assistant that the world has been waiting for. Meet Cortana.
Cortana has to be such a game changer that Oprah adds her to her list of favorite things, seeing a Windows Phone powered by Cortana as a natural companion to her esteemed Surface(which too will eventually be powered by Cortana). New’s programs need to recognize Cortana as an industry upsetting technology that endows the mobile market David, Microsoft, with an anointed stone and slingshot that threatens to topple the giants, Google, Samsung and Apple. Consumers should be talking about Cortana around the water cooler, that digital assistant; that reminds them of that cool AI powered Trans Am, who was friend and partner to Michael Knight in the popular 80’s series Knight Rider. “She” should be the reality to the fiction shown to us in the imaginative movie “Her”.
Cortana should be so ground breaking that she finds coverage in a variety of publications that cater to specific groups like Good House Keeping, Popular Mechanics, RedBook, Men’s Health, Scientific American, O, etc. spanning the range, proving that “she” is a ubiquitous support catering to all.
Cortana must be revolutionary, driving consumers to the carriers telling sales associates that they want that cell phone that is like “Her”. Or, “show me the phone with Cortana.” Or “do you have the phone that really talks to you.” Or “I want a Windows Phone!”Sale’s associates, in response confident of all of the Windows Phone 8.1 updates and themselves(maybe even feeling guilty for their excitement over Cortana and betrayal to their platform of choice) should be genuinely moved by Microsoft’s offering and with mirrored excitement pitch the Windows Phone.
As the enterprise space is now greatly influenced by the consumer space Microsoft cannot be content with under the hood modifications that make Windows Phone business ready. Their corporate sales force will not be enough to push Windows Phones to enterprise customers. More and more companies are capitulating to the desires of their employees, accepting their personal devices as part of the corporate IT infrastructure. And the iPhone is becoming the de facto standard. This is because consumers want the iPhone. Microsoft’s enterprise success will be a direct result of their consumer success. Cortana must change the game. Microsoft must ensure, for their consumer and enterprise success, that Cortana is the killer feature that makes consumers say, “I want that.”
Yes, Recess is Over
Microsoft is keenly aware of its position in the market. Even with its commendable growth and additional developer support, it’s incredible success, even outperforming Apple in some markets, 4% in the global market is well below where they want to be- where they need to be. Time for promises of what the platform will be is passed. The updates in Windows Phone 8.1 address most of the shortcomings of the platform for both business and consumers. The promise of, and yet the persistent lack of a unified app store however, is still a gaping hole that remains between Microsoft’s platform and the competition – though WP 8.1 does bring Microsoft’s platforms closer together. The app gap, for real life practical usage purposes as discussed above has a less real impact on most consumers as most major apps are on the platform and third party apps which perform the functions of first party versions fill many remaining gaps. These advances and the gaps are both real. Four (4) years in, striving against intense competition from juggernauts like Samsung, Google and Apple which are looking to pioneer innovation in the vast, broadly untouched category of health and wellness this year, Microsoft no longer has a pass as the new kid trying to get its footing. Critics, supporters and general consumers will likely draw a hard line on the company this year regarding its mobile offerings. Yes, recess is over.
Like Vince, from the cartoon “Recess, Microsoft, the once cool and “in” entity missed the mobile boat. They found themselves the outsider, the underdog while the likes of Samsung, Google and Apple touted devices with features and capabilities Microsoft’s offering just were not capable of. Microsoft watched the market, took copious notes and in Windows Phone 8.1, like Vince, equipped it’s devices with all of the cool features that brought it up to par with what has been in the market up to this point.
Come April, like Vince that fateful Monday morning, Microsoft will debut Windows Phone 8.1. They will confidently and with well deserved pride expound on the exhaustive list of OS enhancing features. They will likely round their presentation off with their coup de gras, their ace in the hole, their new portal to rendering service to their customer base – their version of a true digital assistant. If Cortana is not revolutionary, like Vince’s classmates, the market may sit and stare at Microsoft in awkward silence.
I am a Windows Phone fan, like millions of others. If this occurs, if Cortana is not the revolutionary promise, we faithful will of course remain committed to the platform, thoroughly excited about the advances given to us and the parity reached with competing platforms. Our conciliatory arms will be thrown over Microsoft’s shoulders, genuinely applauding their hard work and offerings for their preparation will have been on point, their efforts commendable and their persistence praiseworthy but quite possibly – too late. Someone will chime in that mobile health and wellness is what’s now in and consumers are donning and preparing to don health enabled paraphernalia linked to their health and wellness enhancing devices. If Cortana is not the promised revolutionary game changer, will Microsoft be able to maintain it’s momentum in the mobile arena; will they ever make significant inroads in the mobile arena against stiff and unyielding competition? In the immortal words of Vince from recess, “Me No Know.”