Last year at its Build developer conference, Microsoft gave quite a bit of time on Day 1 to a conceptual demo about meetings of the future. In that demo, futuristic Cortana-enabled conferencing capabilities figured heavily as did Cortana integration with Teams, Outlook and Windows. This year at Build, a more business-first Cortana plus various bot and virtual assistant services, also look to be on the agenda. Microsoft has been honing its "conversation as a service"/bot pitch since at least 2016. A quick look at this year's published Build 2019 sessions shows that Cortana isn't totally out of the picture, despite its falling far behind Alexa and Google Assistant in terms of usage and mindshare.
Microsoft officials have spent the past year working on the public repositioning of Cortana from standalone digital assistant to more of an assistance aide. But it wasn't until this week that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella officially confirmed what we've already seen happening: Cortana is going to be an app, or skill, not a standalone assistant like Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple's Siri. Nadella spoke to a select group of journalists on the Microsoft campus earlier this week. Thanks to a transcript from one of those invited (which will cost you $10 if you aren't already a subscriber to the daily Stratechery newsletter), we know that Nadella was asked about Microsoft's aspirations in the consumer space. "One thing that I feel like at Microsoft we made a bunch of mistakes by just saying let's just enter every category, just because we're a software company," he told attendees.
Internet-connected intelligent gizmos had a big showing at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, and there is one common thread between many ofthem: Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant. Lenovo has a new speaker featuring the assistant. Volkswagen and Ford are building Alexa into their cars. Plus, there's a whole flotilla of other connected devices featuring Alexa, including a high-tech refrigerator from LG. That's not to say other virtual assistants aren't doing the same thing, but Amazon is the clear winner by volume at CES. So, what does that mean for the virtual assistant market, which includes competitors such as Microsoft's Cortana, the Google Assistant and Apple's Siri?
A few years ago at its Build developer conference, Microsoft made its conversation as a service (CaaS) offerings the centerpiece of its announcements. This year, Microsoft made some solid advancements with its bot services, but didn't trumpet them nearly as loudly. Azure Bot Service is for customers who want to build enterprise-grade bots while maintaining control of their data. Microsoft Bot Framework is for users who want to build custom bots which can be used as integrated component. Microsoft's Virtual Assistant Solution Accelerator is now generally available.
Microsoft is continuing its march toward refocusing its Cortana digital assistant on productivity scenarios. Today, July 31, Microsoft is going public with dates for phasing out more consumer-focused entertainment and smart-home features via a new Support Article on upcoming changes to Cortana. Microsoft has been transitioning Cortana from a personal digital assistant similar to Alexa and Google Nest to more of an embedded productivity aide tied into Microsoft 365 for the past few years. And with hands-free/touch-free scenarios becoming more important as a result of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the importance of voice interaction to handle work tasks is only growing. Today, Microsoft officials said that Microsoft will be ending support for all third-party Cortana skills on September 7. Microsoft never made much progress in getting developers to build skills for Cortana.