The annual Consumer Electronics Show is always a good opportunity to get an early look at devices coming throughout the year. It’s also a reasonable gauge on the health of an ecosystem, or emerging platforms. At this year’s CES it was all about Alexa vs. Google Assistant. If you were hoping to see more Cortana-powered devices, they were nowhere to be found.
With the exception of the Cortana-powered thermostat (announced last year), no new Cortana devices were unveiled at CES this year. In comparison, Alexa is arriving on headphones, smartwatches, cars, and many more TVs this year, and will even be able to directly control ovens and microwaves. Google introduced a new Smart Display platform with its Assistant, and Google Assistant is also coming to more TVs, headphones, and even Android Auto. Google made it clear it was ready to fight Alexa, but Microsoft stayed silent.
Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant has been largely limited to Windows 10 PCs, after originally launching on Windows Phones back in 2014. Microsoft may have missed the hardware scenario for a dedicated Cortana device, but the company has invested in pushing Cortana on Windows 10. Despite a claim of 141 million monthly Cortana users, Amazon looks set to even challenge Microsoft in this area. HP, Lenovo, Asus, and Acer all plan on integrating an Alexa app on upcoming Windows 10 machines this year, providing a challenge to Cortana on the desktop.
Microsoft has been convincing PC makers to integrate far-field microphones in their devices, and now Amazon is tempting them to use that hardware for Alexa. Microsoft has previously shown how Cortana can work in speakers, cars, fridges, toasters, and thermostats, but we’ve only seen one dedicated Cortana speaker so far and a single thermostat. With a lack of hardware supporting Cortana, Microsoft is instead promising that more will come in time.
In fact, Microsoft says it’s playing the long game with Cortana, something it also unsuccessfully attempted with Windows Phone. “It’s a long journey to making a real assistant that you can communicate with over a longer period of time to really be approachable and interesting and better than the alternative,” explains Andrew Shuman, corporate vice president of Cortana engineering, in an interview with GeekWire. “That is our journey, to make some make some great experiences that shine through, and recognize that long haul.”
Microsoft has announced new partnerships with Ecobee, Geeni, Honeywell, IFTTT, LIFX, and TP-Link, but we now need to see the hardware evidence of Microsoft’s long haul. While Alexa and Google Assistant appear on more and more devices, Cortana is being left behind. Microsoft’s Cortana isn’t the only digital assistant being left behind, though.
Apple’s Siri, which debuted long before Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant, has remained firmly on the company’s iPhone devices. Apple has been pushing its HomeKit platform instead of Siri, but there are signs this isn’t working for Apple’s ecosystem. As analyst Ben Bajarin points out, Apple usually has an indirect presence at CES, but this year it was Alexa and Google Assistant dominating the platform wars. Apple delayed its HomePod speaker to “early 2018,” and we’re waiting to see if the company will ever create a Siri platform outside of its own devices.
While HomeKit has broad support for smart home devices, it’s clear that millions of people are using voice-activated smart speakers to control smart home devices, music playback, and access online information like weather forecasts. It’s a segment that’s growing, and both Apple and Microsoft are both far behind the competition.