A Big Step Forward that Leaves Much To Be Desired
Given Apple’s and Google’s dominance, not many of us follow Microsoft news anymore. But instead of coming apart at the seams, it looks like Microsoft is adopting the only credible strategy – trying to out-innovate its competition to the point where it becomes a leader again. Signs of success are visible with Azure becoming the most credible competition to AWS, and it seems like some if its artificial intelligence efforts are just as ambitious. Against that backdrop, the recent Cortana / Windows Speech Platform developments are steps in the right direction.
App vs. Platform
Back in September 2013 ahead of the iPhone 5 / iOS 6 launch we were trying to predict Apple’s next move. Siri launched a year earlier on the iPhone 4S, and our wager at the time (at Desti / SRI) was that iOS 6 will open Siri-as-a-platform, allowing application developers to tie their offerings into the speech-driven UX paradigm, bringing speech interaction to a critical mass. Guess what – 18 months later, Siri is still a limited, closed service, and even Google Now API is still a rumor. So Microsoft’s announcements last week is a breath of fresh air and potentially a strategic move.
In a nutshell – here are the main points of what was announced (and here’s a link to the lecture at //build/):
- Cortana available on all Windows platforms
- 3rd party apps can extend Cortana by “registering” to respond to requests, e.g. “Tell my group on Slack that we will meet 30 minutes later”
- Requests can be handled in the app, or the app can interact using Cortana’s dialog UI
Given that Windows Phone seems to be subject to the Non-Proliferation-Treaty (an attempt at a joke meaning its not a relevant platform), extending Cortana to other Windows assets is crucial if Cortana is to be successful. More importantly – it’s an important step towards making voice interaction with computers mainstream. Making Cortana pluggability turns it into a platform that can hope to be pervasive through a network effect. However – what was announced leaves much to be desired with regards to both platform strategy and platform capabilities.
Cortana API: Speech without Natural Language is an Unfinished Bridge
I’m a frequent user of Siri. There are simply many situations where immediate, hands-free action is the quickest / safest way to get some help or to record some information. One of Siri’s biggest issues in such situations is its linear behavior – once it goes down a path, its very hard to correct and go down another. Consider for instance searching for gas stations while you’re driving down a highway – you get a list of stations and then it kind of cycles through them by order of distance (which is not very helpful if you’ve already past something). But going back and forth in that list (“show me the previous one”) or adding something to your intent (“show me the one near the airport”) is impossible. So often you end up going back to tapping and typing. That’s where a more powerful natural-language-understanding platform is needed, e.g. SRI’s VPA, or potentially wit.ai (now owned by Facebook) or api.ai.
Cortana’s API allows you to create rudimentary grammars where you more-or-less need to literally specify exactly the sentences your app should understand, with rudimentary capabilities to describe sentence templates. There is no real notion of synonyms, pursuing intent completion (i.e. “filling all the mandatory fields in the form”), going back to change something etc. So this is more or less an IVR-specification platform, and we all know how we love IVRs, right? If you want to do more – the app can get the text and “parse it” itself. That means that every app developer that wants to go beyond the IVR model needs to be learn how to build a natural-language-understanding system. That’s not how platforms work, and will not support the proliferation of this mode of interaction – crucial for making Cortana a strategic asset.
Now arguably you could say – well, maybe they never saw it as a strategic asset, maybe they were just towing the line set by Apple and Google. That, however, would be a missed opportunity.
Speech-enabling Things is a Credible Platform Strategy
The Internet of Things is coming, and it is going to be an all-encompassing experience – after all, we are surrounded by things. For many reasons, these things will not all come from the same company. A company that will own a meaningful part of the experience of these things and make them dependent on its platform – for UI, for personal data, for connectivity etc. – that company would own the user experience for so much of the user’s world. In other words – give these device makers a standardized, integrated interaction platform for their devices and you own billions of consumers’ lives.
Cortana in the clowd can be a (front-end to) a platform that 3rd party developers can use to speech-enable interactions with devices – whether they make the devices (e.g. the wearable camera that needs to upload images taken) or the experiences that use them (e.g. activating Pandora on your wireless speaker). Give these app / device developers a way to create this experience and connect it to the user’s personal profile (that he/she already accesses through their laptop, smartphone, tablet etc.) and you become the glue that holds the world together. This type of software-driven platform play is exactly the strategy Microsoft’s excelled at for so many years.
To be an element of such a strategy, Cortana needs to be a cloud service. Not just a service available across Windows devices, but a cloud-based platform-as-a-service that can integrate with non-Windows Things. That can be part of a wider strategy of IoT-focused platform-as-a-service (for instance – connecting your things to your personal profile, so they can recognize you and interact in a personalized context), but mostly it needs to be Damn Good. Cause Google is coming.
Building a platform ecosystem and then sucking it for all its worth used to be Microsoft’s forte. Cortana in the cloud, as a strong NLU and speech platform could be an important element of its comeback strategy.