Microsoft Cortana, the Cinderella of CES18

on January 17, 2018

Everybody was eagerly watching to see whether Alexa maintained the leadership she so clearly established in 2017. This year, of course, she was not the only belle of the ball. Google Assistant had a very strong presence both in advertising and announcements but still trailed behind Alexa. As Ben Bajarin noted, Siri and the Apple ecosystem were much less visible than we have grown accustomed to since the iPhone and iOS hit the market. We can list the reasons why this might be the case: from a lack of strong marketing on Apple’s part for HomeKit and how it is linked to Siri, to a limbo phase while we wait for the new and improved Siri in HomePod, or maybe because when it comes to the home even Apple fans do not only consider Apple. Whatever the reason is, I think that Apple gets the benefit of the doubt that they will be there when it matters but someone who does not get the same treatment are Microsoft and Cortana.

Cortana’s Support is a Tick Box for Windows Partners

Cortana was not totally absent at CES as there were some announcements made like added support for Ecobee, Geeni, Honeywell Lyric, IFTTT, LIFX, TP-Link Kasa and Honeywell Total Connect Comfort. Yet, when it came to Windows partners and bigger brands, Cortana was always the last assistant mention. It seemed that having support for Cortana had more to do with wanting to support Microsoft and Windows rather than believing Cortana has a real shot at becoming one of the assistants in our life.

While this tick in the box approach might be good on paper it is not likely to make a difference in the market. Lack of conviction that Cortana is a differentiator will impact how much it will be highlighted as a feature both in products and in marketing.

The Race is Long, pacing Yourself is Good but so is showing Determination to win

In a recent interview with GeekWire Andrew Shuman, corporate VP of Cortana Engineering stated that “it’s a long journey to make a real assistant that you can communicate with over a longer period of time to really be approachable and interesting and better than the alternative.” I could not agree more with this statement.

The Digital Assistant race is a marathon, not a sprint and we are just at the beginning. Getting it right when it comes to skills such as context-awareness, natural language and empathy will make a huge difference in building engagement and trust. Yet, precisely because the relationship with a digital assistant is not born overnight, engagement must start somewhere.

Today, our exchanges with an assistant might be basic and certainly nowhere close to a conversation. That said, we are starting to learn who does what best, whose personality we like the most and who we trust to get it right. Over time, our engagement will drive loyalty and while we might find a better assistant the idea of having to start again with training her might just put us off too much.

This is Microsoft’s risk, which is not very dissimilar to what they faced in mobile. By the time Windows Mobile was a solid alternative to iOS and Android, consumers were either too vested in one of those two or inertia just did not have them try something new.

Past missteps, like Windows Mobile, is what Microsoft is being judged on here rather than the actual efforts made with Cortana. Microsoft was certainly not late to the voice assistant party. Cortana was announced at Build 2013 a few months before Alexa. But there is a feeling that Microsoft, even more so than Apple, was unable to capitalize on this early move.

Needing vs. having an Ecosystem

A sense of urgency is a great thing for any brand. When it comes to digital assistants I firmly believe that nobody had a stronger sense of urgency than Amazon. Finding a different way to grab consumers after the failed Fire Phone attempt was paramount and they went all in with Echo and Alexa.

The same cannot be said for Microsoft or Apple. Microsoft had a long list of partners around Windows – albeit more on the enterprise side than on the consumer side – and Apple had iOS. This made the assistant a longer-term game in my view and certainly not a short-term necessity.

When it comes to Microsoft, in particular, I do believe they think there is more time given enterprises are yet to show much interest in digital assistants despite Amazon making Alexa for business. The question then becomes, is Microsoft interested in having a digital assistant in the consumer market or at least one that will leave the office and come home with us? If the answer is yes, then their sense of urgency should certainly grow. If smartphones have taught us anything is that the flow of technology influence has shifted from the consumer to the enterprise and I do not see that reversing any time soon.

Cortana needs a Bigger Voice

Finally, if the question to my above question is yes, Microsoft does want Cortana outside of the enterprise, they must talk about her more. Often it feels that Cortana is just another Windows 10 feature rather than, for lack of better words, a “tool” in her own right. While I understand the difficulty of talking about Cortana in a broader context due to her strong presence on PCs, Microsoft must focus on talking about her capabilities, providing more point of contact with users and broadening her reach in the home in particular. Easier said than done, I know, but it could all start with Microsoft being more open on how they see Cortana develop. Microsoft has been able to share the vision around HoloLens since the device was merely a prototype fresh out of the lab, surely, they can articulate how they see Cortana evolve and take us on that journey.