Microsoft makes a grab for VPA future with Cortana-powered devices

Microsoft's plan to roll out Cortana-powered devices anticipates the inevitability of virtual assistants in the workplace.

Fashionably late is one way to describe Microsoft's entry into the arena of virtual assistant-powered devices. Missed the boat is another.

The tech giant, no doubt, prefers playing the long game as the right assessment for this week's bid to compete in the virtual personal assistant (VPA) market.

In a "don't forget about me!" move at its annual Build event, Microsoft announced that it is partnering with the likes of Samsung's Harman Kardon, HP and Intel to roll out a series of devices powered by Cortana, its AI virtual assistant.

Gaining traction will be an uphill battle for Microsoft, said Werner Goertz, research director at Gartner.

"Cortana has not rivalled Amazon’s Alexa thus far in relevance within the [virtual personal assistant] world because it was virtually limited to Windows 10 desktop environments," Goertz said. "Alexa,  and to a somewhat lesser extent Google Assistant, have captured early mind and market share and set up barriers to entry for other VPAs such as Cortana, Siri, Bixby, and others."

But there are still spaces left open by Alexa and Google Assistant, Goertz added. In addition to the consumer market, VPA technology is making its way into the enterprise, where analysts expect it to be a major disruptive force -- and where there is no clear frontrunner.

"While Amazon certainly has a first-mover advantage in the consumer space with Echo and with Alexa-powered devices, Microsoft may be more likely to succeed in the B2B and B2B2C [business to business to consumer] space," said Thomas Husson, Forrester analyst.

Goertz agreed.

"There is an unfulfilled need for VPA support in the enterprise," he said. "Amazon’s Alexa -- today -- lacks key capabilities such as speaker authentication, enterprise-relevant privacy and confidentiality assurances and active directory integration. Here, Microsoft has an opportunity to penetrate due to its enterprise assets and brand in the minds of enterprise CIOs".

Indeed, the first of the Cortana-powered devices to be rolled out -- Invoke, a Harman Kardon smart speaker that hopes to compete with Amazon Echo and Google Home -- is being marketed as a work device. In a statement, Harman Kardon said that Invoke is made for "busy people balancing the competing demands of work and home."

Invoke will be able to perform all of the same tasks its competitors do, but with a better sound system and the ability to make and receive Skype calls -- something missing in the competition.

"Microsoft has invested a lot in communication interfaces (from Skype to chatbots via Cortana) and in artificial intelligence technologies, enabling [their offerings] to be more predictive and more contextual and thus more relevant," Husson said.

The CIO take: Get ready

Whether or not Microsoft succeeds with its Cortana-powered devices, CIOs should expect VPAs to play a disruptive role in the enterprise, Husson said.

"While it is still early days, bots and voice-based intelligent agents will converge and offer new forms of human-to-machine interactions," he said. "It may be difficult to realize today but I truly believe that in the next five to 10 years, they will have the same kind of impact that touchscreens have had in the past 10 years. Language is the most natural form of interaction for people."

Goertz laid out three ways he foresees VPAs disrupting the enterprise:

  • Client-facing interactions: Natural language interfaces reduce friction when it comes to customers engaging with enterprise portals, so enterprises will quickly adopt natural language interfaces, backed with machine learning, artificial intelligence and deep neural networking principles.
  • Enterprise communications: Enterprise communications will be disrupted by commoditized VPA-enabled wireless speakers and VPA services. Devices and services such as Amazon's Echo Show will eventually challenge enterprise Unified Communications (UC) strategies, once the hurdles of speaker authentication, privacy and back office integration are overcome.
  • New business opportunities: Applications in telemedicine, healthcare and elder care open up digital business opportunities for device makers, service providers and healthcare/elder care players. Ecosystem collaborations and sharing of recurring digital business revenues will disrupt traditional caregiving methodologies.

But, make no mistake, enterprise integration of VPAs is not for the faint of heart. Husson advises CIOs to anticipate the trend and start now by creating a data personalization layer that will enable them to contextualize experiences whatever the touchpoint, be it a mobile app, a chatbot, a messaging app, a smart voice-enabled speaker, or a car interface.

"Piloting such innovative services early will help businesses figure out how to work with these digital platforms, how to develop services on their own and how to share data to avoid being disintermediated," Husson said.

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