If CES 2016 saw the first trickles of Alexa compatibility, and CES 2017 saw the dam break, this year's CES saw Amazon's voice agent flood the landscape of consumer devices, working its way into such water analogy-friendly devices as showers, washing machines and home leak detection devices. Alexa's commanding mindshare was enough to bring Google to the Las Vegas event in full force, eager to encourage the world to shout its name.
Unlike Amazon and Google, Apple has pushed its smart devices interface, HomeKit, which provides Siri compatibility, rather than promoting Siri compatibility per se in the market. Because the company's secure standing as a smartphone powerhouse ensures it will have the volumes needed to drive marketplace adoption, the lack of compatibility announcements at CES didn't seem to raise much questioning of its long-term ability to compete for the next wave in user interface.
But for other companies that must rely heavily on partners to drive voice input points, the bar for momentum is higher. As ZDNet editor-in-chief Larry Dignan noted, the paucity of support for Microsoft's Cortana from third parties casts doubt on the long-term viability of Microsoft's agent. ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley then reported that Microsoft is quick to defend Cortana, which the company says will go head-to-head with signature agents of its rival ecosystems, even in the CES-focused task of home automation.
With Microsoft having had limited mobile OS penetration prior to leaving the market, its best platform for Cortana distribution is the mobility-limited PC. I've questioned the value of such interfaces on desktop OSes.
However, with Alexa now findings its way into PCs, this raises questions about the opportunity for -- or at least the perceived value of -- Cortana. Cortana's distant position behind Alexa and Google Assistant could mean its best opportunity for the near-term is to piggyback onto devices that are supporting multiple agents, a strategy that Sonos is pursuing and that should be further enabled by chipsets such as those from Qualcomm.
But Cortana has far more potential than just a third or fourth option for finding out if your washing load is done. As I've written regarding the auto industry, Cortana is a vital component for Microsoft to compete in certain verticals. But Cortana is even more core to Microsoft's horizontal software efforts. That the company has delayed integration with some of its own core applications such as Office and Dynamics may be disappointing, but putting Cortana to work provides not only its best shot at adoption, but a rich and challenging set of circumstances, and its highest potential value and loyalty payoff.
This helps explain why, in the context of a partnership between Amazon and Microsoft, Alexa doesn't have to lose for Cortana to win (or at least win more than it seems to be winning now). While operating at a level far above them, Cortana should be thought of in a vein similar to Intune or Sharepoint -- something that aids the productivity of devices or people across a network. And while Microsoft's Azure AI services aren't branded by Cortana, clearly there is a lot of cross-pollinated development with the branded agent.
Cortana also has a great opportunity to work not only with agents that may be broader, but also those that are more specialized. While Alexa and Google Assistant may reach a level of ubiquity, they will not deliver equal value in all contexts. Already we are seeing specialized agents spring up to help us with a range of business tasks such as Clara.io and x.ai for scheduling meetings and Eva for transcribing and distributing key intelligence from conference calls. All provide good examples of how we would want to engage with agents beyond barking out commands and waiting for a conversational answer.
Of course, these are all domains that also interest Microsoft. The company no doubt envisions a world where Cortana can not only rival the value of a human assistant or even manage projects, but proactively expose resources within an organization that would likely evade a human assistant. But that's a destination.
In the shorter term, the company needs to risk the perception of underwhelming contributions -- not only to spur adoption but to help the market understand how it is working toward a different proposition than Amazon and Google. Amazon may have made it easy and inexpensive to bring Alexa into one's life, but it's still had to earn its keep.