About a week ago, Microsoft leaked its Cortana user base numbers, citing 145 million monthly active users engaging with its home-grown virtual assistant. That’s understandable, considering the fact that Windows 10 install base crossed 400 million devices more than six months ago, but it is significant from another perspective as well – the growth of Amazon Alexa on Echo and other devices, and the recent entry of Google into the space with Google Home.
The Amazon Echo family of smart speakers is estimated to have sold between 8 million and 11 million units since its launch in 2014. That’s an impressive number on its own, but it now pales in comparison with Cortana’s active user base.
It’s unfair to compare the two, since Alexa is on a two-year-old device and Cortana was born on an operating system whose predecessors have used for decades by an overwhelming majority of desktop users around the world, not to mention on Xbox, Android and iOS as well.
But that’s how it rolls, and Microsoft is now trying to leverage Amazon Alexa skills developers to give Cortana even more ‘oomph.’
According to Voicebot.ai, Microsoft has been sending emails to key developers of Alexa Skills in an attempt to lure them into becoming launch partners for the Cortana Skills Kit (CSK). Much of the content in that email is taken from Microsoft’s developer site.
Microsoft’s Cortana has, until now, been viewed as trailing behind Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. However, the biggest reason for that was the lack of a physical device like Echo or Google Home. But now, it seems Cortana is undeniably the most used of the three smart assistants.
Why Does Cortana Need More Skills?
Of all the companies in the world, Microsoft knows best that it cannot compete in the mobile space without a solid body of apps and a strong community of app developers. In the case of Cortana, it’s more to do with accessing a greater number of apps and smart devices. Alexa and Google Assistant are more advanced in that respect, and integration with other device types, such as native capability on smartphones, has already begun.
In order to leverage the Cortana user base, Microsoft is going after these app integrations. Cortana works really well within Windows 10, Xbox and even Office 365 environments, but not as great on iOS and Android. And that’s what they seem to have in mind.
To make it simpler for Alexa Skills developers to switch over to Cortana, Microsoft specifically mentions within the email that “We’ve made it easy to reuse the code, language models and cards you’ve created for your Alexa skill — and your Cortana skill will work across platforms and devices.”
Amazon motivated the developer community by offering the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) API for free, and providing all the tools the developers needed, including ASK (Alexa Skills Kit) and the AWS platform itself. Now, Microsoft is doing the same with CSK and Cortana Devices SDK (announced in December 2016) so developers can build skills as well as integrate Cortana with their own devices.
If Microsoft succeeds at convincing developers to do the same work for Cortana as they did for Alexa, it’s almost like taking a piggyback ride on Amazon’s efforts thus far. Microsoft isn’t about to make the same mistake it did years ago, when it allowed the iOS and Android app ecosystems to grow profusely without matching it with a strong app presence on Windows Store.
The company clearly wants Cortana to have more skills in the app domain ahead of launching the Harman/Kardon smart speaker later this year. Cortana wouldn’t be of much use on a smart speaker if it can’t do all the things Alexa and Assistant can do on the Echo and Google Home devices – and then some.
It’s a sound strategy, but it looks like Microsoft sat on the fence this time as well. Fortunately, they’ve quickly jumped off it, and are now aggressively chasing developers to fill that potential gap before launching their own smart speakers.
If it is successful, the new speaker will have a significant edge over Amazon’s and Google’s devices. Not only will it be able to match Alexa skill for skill, but it will also bring Cortana’s productivity skills into the picture, allow two-way Skype calls and, of course, offer world-class audio quality because of the Harman/Kardon element.
We think the new speakers will do extremely well, especially with business users that are already on a Windows 10 environment. Even consumers should find them more appealing because of the additional benefits they bring to the table. Literally.
Cortana is closely tied in with that potential success, and Microsoft is clearly after beefing up her capabilities as soon as possible.
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