Cortana is the Next Big Thing
I woke up early this (7/1/14) morning with this particular article on my mind. During the course of the day Wired released an article relating Apples renewed investment in Siri. That new information changes the tenor of this piece somewhat yet I feel the core message remains unchanged. Microsoft’s Cortana is the Future and That’s Not All Talk
What, Cortana the next big thing? This guy must have missed WWDC and Google I/O! Not quite. I assure you that I am quite aware of what both Apple and Google have brought to the table via their respective annual developer’s conferences. I am also cognizant of what Microsoft brought to the game by way of Cortana via their BUILD conference in April of this year. Just to quell any concerns that I may have missed the open sourcing of the .Net framework, Microsoft’s work on the Internet of Things (IoT – cool internet connected piano by the way), the closer convergence of Windows Phone and Windows and a host of other Microsoftie goodies, I mention them as relevant, highly important to the companies future, but in regards to the next big thing, Cortana takes the gold.
Looking forward into 2014, anticipating what we could expect the market to yield, I wrote in February, “Why Windows Phone 8.1, Particularly Cortana Must be Revolutionary.” In this piece I posit the challenges Microsoft would face from its two (actually three) competitors Apple, Google/Samsung (Android) this year. Given market trends, the strengths and positions of these companies, their consumer base, partners and resources combined with sporadic leaks and tidbits that made their way to the web, I felt that it was clear that both Apple and Google/Samsung would have a priority focus on Health/Fitness and Wearables this year and that their digital assistants would receive little if any attention. Both of their conferences yielded as much.
In addition to an assortment of other things these companies brought such as Apple’s Swift programming language and Google’s device agnostic Android L and Material Design, the iOS and Android camps have also brought their operating systems to home automation and automotives in a big way. Thus the companies that have had digital assistants as a staple on their devices for several years now, gave them little love during their massive, well attended and very hyped developers conferences; instead health and fitness, wearables, home automation and a drive to our automobiles took the spotlight.
With all this said, why I retain my position that Cortana is the next big thing is likely a question on your minds. Before I answer that let’s get something out of the way first. It is no secret that Microsoft has a notorious reputation for moving slowly and missing major trends. It is also worthy to note that Microsoft is notoriously known for bringing innovation to the industry before it’s time and/or failing to invest the necessary resources to ensure its success. The tablet computer and the smartphone OS are prime examples where Microsoft beat the two market leaders in this arena to market and failed to iterate and establish itself as the leader in that space. The concept of a digital assistant is a another space where Microsoft was early to market, arriving years before the necessary technology for success would be available.
Microsoft Bob was a local OS digital assistant introduced by the Redmond company that did not have the benefit of the resources that makes a digital assistant useful. The internet was in its infancy and was not widespread and commercially available as it is today. Neural network technology that allows a digital assistant to learn had not yet experienced the breakthrough that makes the technology useful as it is today. Voice recognition technology was not yet efficient. Finally the cell phone with its “extra appendage” position in our lives, which makes it an optimal data collection tool to improve personalization and a relevant medium for a personal assistant to serve a user, was not yet the ubiquitous personal computer it is today. Thus Bob was a dream in world that could not sustain him.
2014 is a different world. High speed internet is growing rapidly around the globe. Smartphones are actually personal computers that nearly every person can have. Even people in developing countries where low cost devices are targeted to the next billion by companies like Microsoft and Samsung and now Google with Android One; people can have a smartphone which is often their first internet connected device. Voice recognition technology has matured and neural networks which were heavily invested in by Microsoft have catapulted the capabilities of digital assistants to new levels.
This brings me to my point. The technologies of home automation, wearable’s, embedded operating systems in cars and to a lesser degree Health and Fitness tech have one major lynch pin – voice. All of these technologies are part of the post PC world where computing is increasingly mobile. This trend is only going to escalate. Mobile computing requires a different form of engagement and interaction than what was applied in years past. We are moving. We are no longer using computers only at a desk or workstation, we are wearing them, carrying them in our pockets, they are in our cars and they are running our homes. It is impractical to attempt to engage these computers in the way we engaged desktop and laptop computers ten years ago. So what is the most efficient method to engage the computer that will turn my lights on and off in my home? My voice. What is the most efficient way to engage the computer that is operating functions in my vehicle? My Voice. What is the most efficient way to engage my wearable devices? Well you get it. Voice is the post PC method of engaging the new computer user interface – the digital assistant.
It is to be noted that the digital assistant operating your wearables is the same assistant running your home, providing stewardship monitoring and saving health/fitness data and operating tasks in your car. This assistant will not be device specific but will go where you go and recognize you within various contexts and serve your needs accordingly. This is why Cortana is the next big thing.
Microsoft has changed within recent years. They are working hard to shake the image of the old stogy company that is immobile and stagnant. Internal reorganizations within the company have brought teams together creating a less siloed business approach and one more conducive to collaboration. Schedules have been modified to ensure a more rapid release of new products, services and updates. The company has taken on a much more aggressive approach to consumers which is reflected in the establishment of approximately 100 retail stores to date. The stores staff and décor sport lively colors, active displays adorn the walls and products from cell phones to tablets, PC’s and accessories are open to consumers to try on the sales floor. Microsoft has attained this consumer focus, accompanied with consumer focused commercials, while maintaining a focus on their forte, the enterprise. Yes, Microsoft has changed; they have become far more nimble and proactive. Their risky bet on neural network technology is a rewarding result of this change.
Neural Networks mimic the way the brain works. The technology allows for deep machine learning. Microsoft’s sci-fi like real time language translator in Skype, akin to Star Treks Universal Translator, is an example of what can be achieved via neural network application. This technology, heavily studied by Microsoft Research, has even yielded the ability to improve a learned language after learning a new language at a future date. For example if the system learns French and then at a later date learns English the systems proficiency in French improves as a derivative of the new skill learned. If a third language is added skill in the previous two languages again increases. Cortana is a product of this neural net technology.
While Apple, Samsung/Google were focusing their efforts on Health/Fitness, wearables, automobiles and home automation Microsoft was focusing their attention on the technology, the post PC user interface, that binds all these technologies together and makes them optimally useful for users. Cortana’s introduction by Joe Belfiore on stage during the Build keynote was not the introduction of just another digital assistant or just Microsoft’s version of Siri and Google Now as was presented in much of the media. Cortana is Microsoft’s dedicated investment in a technology that will shape how we interact with our computers in the post PC era now and in the years to come. They are not allowing this moment to pass them by. In 2014 Microsoft is ensuring that a strong foundation for post PC computing is in place as they build out their products and services in the new environment.
Microsoft realizes that at the very core of a digital assistant it must be personal. It must know the user. This is why the Microsoft team took the unique approach of interviewing a number of real personal assistants to glean important information about how to make Cortana as personal as possible. They are so serious about this goal that they refer back to those notes to continually improve Cortana even now. This goal to ensure Cortana is highly personal combined with the deep learning capabilities of the system upon which she is built allows her to learn, remember and improve upon her knowledge and service to a user. This is something currently far out off reach for Siri who as of today is still a voice assistant that essentially launches searches but is incapable of learning about a user and cannot proactively offer context relevant and predictive information as Cortana can. Siri unlike Cortana and Google Now also lacks the resource of it’s own self sustained search engine. Google Now does use neural network technology as Cortana does, however the “interface” is highly impersonal. Unlike Cortana GoogleNow has no wit nor engaging personality.
Some may belittle the importance of the witty and somewhat snarky attitude Cortana portrays but studies reveal that such a personality in a digital assistant actually increases user engagement. User engagement of course is important in order for the Bing Satori Knowledge base to collect and analyze data to improve services for the user. User engagement trains the system. The Microsoft Cortana team was brilliant however in it’s realization that interacting with our devices via voice is still a form of engagement that many are still uncomfortable with, especially in public. Their response. Chit-Chat. The Cortana team imbued Cortana with the ability to be asked questions about a number of topics and to respond to a series of follow-up questions on that topic. The benefit of this is that it encourages users to use Cortana. Human beings are creatures of habit. The more we do something, the more comfortable we become doing it and the easier it becomes. Chit-Chat is designed both to “train” the system and the user. Microsoft is clearly thinking and acting proactively in relation to Cortana.
Siri has dipped greatly in popularity due to her disappointing performance to many and is not engaged nearly as much as Apple would hope. IPhone users therefore, though Siri has been around since 2011 on the 4s, are not “trained” to engage Siri. Google Now with its stark presentation and absence of a personality is not appealing enough to users to encourage high levels of user engagement. Microsoft however, envisioning a world where mobile computing controlled by an advanced personal digital assistant that will include our health, cars, homes and a host of wearable devices, has within the nearly 3 months Cortana has been available via the Developers Preview has ensured a system is intrinsically built into Cortana to encourage user engagement.
The Cortana team has also included within Cortana the ability to predict the results of various events. The most recent of which are the World Cup matches. At the time of this writing Cortana has predicted all 8 of the matches correctly. This particular function which is accessed simply by asking Cortana will a particular team win a particular match is very simple and engaging for users. It is both fun and rewarding in that the accuracy of the results serves to increase the confidence users have in Cortana.
The promise of twice a month updates by the Cortana team (which has been kept) is reassuring and exciting for Windows Phone users as well who can look for “new” additions to Cortana regularly. This keeps users engaged not only with the service but also with the process. Additionally members of the Cortana and Bing team have been very engaging with users on social-media addressing issues and with announcing new features. This ensures that users remain satisfied with and engaged with Cortana.
Microsoft is serious about making Cortana an excellent experience on Windows Phone. Marcus Ash, Group Program Manager for Cortana has shared as much. When Cortana moves to tablets and PC’s and maybe even Microsoft wearables the foundation of a highly adaptable learning digital assistant with the capacity for high user engagement will have been laid. Via the millions of users of Bing on iOS, OS X Spotlight, Facebook Search, Windows Phone, Nokia X and Asha line of phones, and Bing on the web and mobile apps, Microsoft has been able to and will continue to collect vast amounts of data that helps build the knowledge base, Bing, that Cortana is built upon. Via her neural net foundation she is continually learning and improving. Via her incredibly personal approach at assisting users, such as remembering relationships, unique qualities like a notebook that controls privacy, and people based reminders where she gives reminders specific to a person, Microsoft in 2014 is building a strong lynch pin to connect users to home automation, the Microsoft’s embedded car OS, health and fitness and wearables which we may see in October.
Finally one of the strongest aspects that Microsoft has built into Cortana is that her speech API is open to developers. This provides a virtually limitless breadth of applications to be built upon the foundation that Microsoft has laid with Cortana. Yes, Microsoft is ahead of the curve in their focus on Cortana. Those who haven’t seen beyond the simple “digital assistant” to the broader paradigm of the Personal Digital Assistant as an “ever present”, highly personal “all”-knowing voice navigated user interface that acts as a steward and access point to your personal information and facilitator of tasks in our post-PC computerized world have not seen what Microsoft sees Cortana being in our lives.
See Windows Phone: The “Halo Effect” -Halo Destiny: Cortana, Her Story Continues With You