Cortana gets no respect. Microsoft’s smart assistant is actually pretty solid, all things told, but it rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant. Maybe it’s a problem of marketing —the company was quick to point at Build in May that its smart assistant now has 141 million monthly users. More likely though, it’s a problem with Microsoft’s hardware strategy.
The company knew as well as the rest of us that CES 2018 was going to be a smart assistant battleground, but Cortana barely entered into the conversation. Google’s Assistant dominated the show’s headlines through sheer brute force of product announced and an over the top ad campaign that found everything from the monorails to the signage at the Westgate emblazoned with the words “Hey Google.”
Amazon’s presence was decidedly less intense, but the company did a solid job keeping up in terms of partner announcements. Both companies leveraged the platforms of their partners to keep their respective assistants dominating the news cycles. Sony, Lenovo, LG and Huawei all happily surrounded time to discuss Google and Amazon’s offerings. Only Samsung really stayed out of the conversation, because, well, Bixby.
We’re still at the beginning of all of this, but thus far, Microsoft’s approach to the assistant feels fairly noncommittal. While it’s true that the company got a good footprint with regards to Windows 10 PCs, the form factor really isn’t a natural one for voice assistants — not like a smartphone or smart speaker. And the company’s only tread cautiously into those waters.
The fact that Microsoft was roundly trounced in mobile has clearly made the company reticent to wade back into those waters, though it has begun work on expanding its presence through iPhone and Android apps. But where are all of the non-PC Cortana devices?
There’s that Harman speaker that launched a while back and just ahead of CES, the company announced the launch of a Cortana-powered thermostat. It’s a nice thermostat, but still, a thermostat does not a smart home strategy make — especially when it costs $319. Pricing was a hugely important piece of Amazon and Google’s smart home successes.
The HP Pavilion Wave fits the bill to some degree, perhaps. The product is as much speaker as PC, with a cloth covering and B&O sound on-board. It’s kitted out with multiple microphones sporting far-field technology, which makes it a perfect contender for a premier Cortana device — but once again, Amazon was the story of the show here. The company announced at the show that it was brining Alexa to Windows 10 PCs, starting with HP.
Microsoft’s Andrew Shuman told us at CES that he believes most voice assistants still have a long way to go (though he used more colorful language to describe this). It’s a fair assessment, of course. We’re still in early days here — but a head start is extremely important when it comes to ecosystems. The company still sounds bullish about the smart assistant. It’s promised more devices later this year.
But if CES was a bellwether for the smart assistant, things don’t look great for Cortana. There’s always next year, I guess.