If you’ve read much about the concept of digital transformation, you’ve probably heard the idea that all companies are becoming tech companies because of the overwhelming influence that technology is having on industries of all types. On one hand, this makes sense, because technologies like cloud computing, AI, and more are enabling a level of involvement with customers and partners that simply wasn’t possible without them. On the other hand, the practical realities are that most companies don’t have the in-house technical expertise to deliver on that promise. This is particularly true with regard to the more advanced technologies—like voice-based digital assistants—that today’s tech industry leaders are starting to offer.
At the company’s Build developer’s conference in Seattle, Microsoft announced important efforts designed to bridge the gap by democratizing the use of technologies like AI and natural language processing in “non-tech-native” companies. The company delivered AI and cloud computing-related enhancements at this year’s conference that ranged from autonomous systems to IoT and beyond. The ones I believe will have the most important long-term impact, however, are those that allow regular organizations and IT people who aren’t data scientists to take advantage of these powerful new technologies. Features like Intellicode, which is built into the latest 16.1 release of their Visual Studio programming application, eases the process of creating AI-enhanced apps, and the new enhancements to their Azure chat bot frameworks look to be particularly interesting.
Voice-based personal assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana have had a particularly profound impact on the consumer market, but many businesses immediately recognized that they had important potential applications in business as well. To that end, we’ve seen initiatives like Alexa for Business get unveiled, as well as a number of efforts to create automated chatbots for online support and other applications. One of the challenges that companies who want to use these capabilities face, however, is that the “partner” provider—such as Amazon in the case of Alexa for Business—becomes the means by which customers interact with their products. So, for example, a car maker that integrates Alexa into one of their automobiles would lose the direct interaction between their brand and their customer. Needless to say, while that’s great for Amazon, it’s not ideal for the car manufacturer.
In order to overcome that gap, Microsoft announced a number of enhancements to their bot frameworks that essentially allow customers to put their own brand back into the conversation, but leverage Microsoft’s natural language processing and conversational AI tools in the background. In essence, Microsoft is serving as a platform provider and allowing partner companies like BMW and Coca-Cola to “white label” these technologies in their own products. So, for example, BMW can offer its customers a voice assistant in its new high-end cars, but the entire experience is BMW-branded and BMW-controlled.
This voice-based customization strategy looks to be a particularly smart move for Microsoft, because the company has had little success in getting people to regularly use their Cortana assistant. At this year’s Build, Microsoft did demonstrate an impressive business-focused application of Cortana, that showed it taking some important steps to becoming a truly useful personal assistant (as opposed to more of a gimmicky reminder setting tool). Thanks to new technology it acquired when it purchased a company called Semantic Machines last year, Cortana is adding the ability to switch between contexts, take specific actions and generally respond in a significantly more intuitive manner.
But the beauty of Microsoft’s platform-type approach for conversational AI means that while Microsoft Cortana-branded features will have these capabilities, eventually, so too will other customers who want to integrate a responsive, effective voice-based UI into their products and services but in the context of their own brand. Frankly, it’s a classic example of Microsoft thinking more about the platform opportunities these types of services can enable than simply the Microsoft-branded functionality that something like Cortana can provide.
As AI pervades all types of applications, industries, and products, it just makes sense that we’re going to end up with a very diverse set of voice-based assistants across a wide range of products. While Alexa or Google Assistant-branded assistants will certainly be appealing for certain users and/or certain devices (and could end up with a larger individual share of the total market than, say, Cortana or any specific application of Microsoft technology) the combined opportunity for voice assistants is likely going to be so large that individual offerings won’t matter as much. That larger opportunity is what Microsoft appears to be targeting with these new efforts, and while only time will tell, it certainly seems to be a strong strategic move on the company’s part.
We’re still in the very early days of voice-based UIs and other AI-powered capabilities, but it feels like we’re starting to get a better glimpse into how these markets are evolving (and how non-tech companies can take advantage of these capabilities and customize them for their own purposes). The image ahead looks exciting.