Microsoft’s former AI expert, Qi Lu, moved to Chinese search giant Baidu earlier this year. Lu spent time working on Cortana and Microsoft’s bot platform whilst he was at the software giant, along with heading up the company’s Bing search and Office teams. In an interview with Wired, Lu has provided some rare insight into Microsoft’s struggles to compete with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.
“I worked on Cortana four and a half years ago. At the time we all were like, 'Amazon, yeah, that technology is so far behind,'” says Lu. “Google and Microsoft, technologically, were ahead of Amazon by a wide margin. But look at the AI race today. The Amazon Alexa ecosystem is far ahead of anybody else in the United States. It’s because they got the scenario right. They got the device right. Essentially, Alexa is an AI-first device.”
Lu believes Microsoft and Google “made the same mistake” of focusing on the phone and PC for voice assistants, instead of a dedicated device. “The phone, in my view, is going to be, for the foreseeable future, a finger-first, mobile-first device,” explains Lu. “You need an AI-first device to solidify an emerging base of ecosystems.”
Microsoft first introduced Cortana ahead of Alexa as a promising digital assistant for its Windows Phone devices. The software giant has expanded Cortana to be built into Windows 10 for PCs and into the company’s Xbox One console. While Microsoft has so far delivered on the software side, it missed the opportunity to put Cortana into a dedicated device. Harman Kardon is launching a Cortana-powered speaker later this year, and Microsoft is expanding Cortana to many more devices. Cortana will run on various Internet of Things (IoT) devices like fridges, toasters, thermostats, and even cars in Microsoft’s latest bid to catch up and beat Amazon’s popular Alexa voice assistant.