Introduction and bots
It isn’t often that Microsoft is the company that beats Apple and Google to the punch, especially when it comes to something as cool and sophisticated as virtual assistants but, with Cortana, Redmond has done just that.
The presentation that Microsoft gave at Build 2016, the company’s annual conference in which it explains where it’s at and what it’s doing, focused on ‘bots’, artificial intelligence, and improving services like Cortana.
Cortana means business
Siri, the virtual assistant that Apple launched alongside the iPhone 4S, and Google Now, the assistant embedded in most new Android phones, are rapidly being outpaced by Microsoft’s assistant, which is available on smartphones, tablets, and PCs. This may not seem like a radical difference, but it does mean that Cortana is well-placed to dominate in an area that Microsoft thrives in – the enterprise.
Embedding Cortana into the mindset of businesses is important and, thanks to the rapid uptake of Windows 10, possible. Every Windows 10 PC has the little box in the bottom left that, when pressed, brings up Cortana, ready to answer any queries, help with any tasks, or respond to inane prodding. Apple and Google do not have this advantage as the assistants are not available on OS X or Chrome OS, the company’s respective PC operating systems.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that Microsoft has outmanoeuvred its competitors. Windows 10, the newest version of the operating system that went on sale last summer, runs across smartphones, tablets, PCs, Xbox, and Internet of Things devices seamlessly, ushering in a new era of universal apps and the Universal Windows Platform.
This platform is what enables Cortana and will, in the future, allow Microsoft to make sweeping advances with its software that can then be rolled out across any number of devices across all hardware ranges. Cortana is simultaneously available on a Microsoft smartphone, a Lenovo tablet, and a Dell PC, and, thanks to Windows 10, she works just the same on all of them.
Build also saw Microsoft adopting a different kind of technology: bots. Essentially, bots are little pieces of software that ‘attach’ onto other software and offer services automatically. For example, a bot enabled in Skype can translate a chat in real-time while a bot in Edge, the browser in Windows 10, can automatically order a pizza from Domino’s.
Microsoft is describing this as ‘Conversation as a Platform’ and spent a lot of time on stage explaining why it is so important for the future of the company, especially since it failed to get in on mobile quick enough to have a meaningful market share now.
Cortana Intelligence Suite
Cortana Intelligence Suite
Cortana, it would seem, is about to get a lot more useful thanks to bots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Microsoft is formalising this by launching the Cortana Intelligence Suite, which is made up of two parts: Microsoft Cognitive Services, a set of APIs that let computers understand humans in more natural terms, and the Microsoft Bot Framework, which lets developers and companies create and manage bots more easily.
All of these software services are built on the back of Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform, and work alongside Office, Windows, and every other piece of software that Microsoft currently makes.
This is important as it means that businesses who have already bought into Microsoft services can quickly and easily harness Cortana and bots, increasing their productivity in the process. For Microsoft, this is a big win on every single level.
Life changing applications
But the applications for this software don’t end there. One of the demos that Microsoft showed focused on a blind software engineer who works for the company in London. Thanks to Cortana, artificial intelligence, and a specially made pair of glasses, he can ‘see’ things as the computer identifies them and describes them. The accompanying video was moving and, for Microsoft, a good way to show how its technology can really change people’s lives.
Google has touted its artificial intelligence smarts in relation to Google Now and, in some ways, it is an impressive technology that can track and predict what the user will be doing. Siri, in iOS 9, also picked up some deeper learning capabilities. But neither rivals Cortana and the aggressiveness with which Microsoft is constantly updating the assistant to deal with new tasks.
This obviously has big applications in the consumer world, but the enterprise world is where Microsoft can really hammer this home. No other company – not Amazon, not Google, not Oracle, not Box – has the level of data, the virtual assistant, or the operating system to do what Microsoft is doing and this is why Cortana is such a key part of Microsoft’s long-term appeal with businesses.
Windows 10 is now on 270 million PCs and businesses are taking to the operating system at an unprecedented rate, according to Microsoft, which means the data set from which all of the intelligent services can draw will only grow bigger and bigger over time making them more and more useful.
Data makes the world go round
One of the goals that Microsoft outlined at Build was to enable users to interact with their computers using natural language. This is achieved by collecting vast amounts of natural language data which is then processed, broken down, and learnt from. Microsoft now has this data and is using it to improve Cortana and its other services.
For the first time in a very long time, Microsoft is leading in a way that Apple, Google, and almost every other big technology firm simply cannot do, and it is this which will firmly cement Redmond’s place as the war over who gets the most users, the cleverest software, and ultimately the biggest share of the profits continues.
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