Cortana: Microsoft’s Halo Effect

Virtual Assistants Become a Cross-Device UI

Cortana_lPersonal digital assistants are becoming a key competitive feature for smart device manufacturers — market players are supporting voice user interfaces (UIs) in the latest round of hardware. As device computing power and connectivity bandwidth increase, the growing accuracy and learning ability of personal assistants like Google Now, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana enables them to become a truly reliable interactive element of information retrieval and device management.

In early 2014, CCS Insight predicted that Microsoft’s voice assistant, Cortana, would be central to Microsoft’s overall hardware and services strategy (see Event Report: Microsoft Build 2014). Cortana was unveiled for Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform in April, and we expected the voice-based assistant to evolve into a common element across the company’s computing platforms (including Windows and Xbox). Shared engines and contextual data across devices would allow the digital assistant to be exposed to the user’s behaviour in a wide scope, gathering data for more accurate profiling.

At an even in San Francisco later this week, Microsoft will provide an early look at its upcoming PC operating system. A version of Cortana is expected to be an important feature of the update, initially acting as a complement to the familiar Windows user interface. Microsoft can utilise its dominant market share in PC operating systems to build Cortana into a strong brand if it manages to impress its current users. The company can customise Cortana’s results in great detail thanks to the use of Microsoft’s Bing as a search and retrieval engine and individual login credentials to link it to e-mail and calendar data. The addition of contextual information like location will allow Cortana to be a proactive service with truly useful and personal recommendations.

Microsoft’s scale across platforms and services will provide the company with data and understanding on macro and micro levels. Cortana is already impressive on Windows Phone, but Microsoft could grow it into a solid cross-platform flagship feature that could afford the company a reverse halo effect from PCs to smartphones. Cortana on Xbox would help Microsoft to compete against Sony’s PlayStation, and CCS Insight believes that voice UI and digital assistants will become a common feature across other devices in the home and car. It’s pivotal time for establishing these interactive elements — personal digital assistants that can accurately anticipate a user’s needs based on their history will be very sticky services.

Microsoft has made a number of playful jabs at Apple’s Siri over the past few weeks, showing Cortana as a more human-like and capable assistant. Microsoft’s installed base in enterprises and home PCs is a current advantage, but it’s worth noting that volumes are now in Google’s favour thanks to Android customers in the developed and developing markets. Encouraging users to search using Cortana could mean Microsoft begins to take search share from Google as the search engine itself hides in the background.

Personal assistants will continue to improve with more supporting data and increased localisation. Significant UI developments are occurring that bring device and cloud-based services closer together. It’s time to listen up.