Former Microsoft AI Exec Explains How Cortana Lost To Amazon Alexa

cortana windows
Microsoft is already dealing with the fallout from Consumer Reports’ decision to pull its recommendation of Surface PCs due to reliability issues, and now a former executive is spilling the beans on turmoil within the company’s Cortana team. Qi Lu, a leading AI researcher, headed up Microsoft’s applications and services unit before abandoning ship earlier this year to work at Chinese tech powerhouse Baidu.

In a recent interview, Lu explains that Microsoft at first didn’t really take Amazon seriously, contending that Alexa technology was far behind what Cortana was capable of achieving. “Google and Microsoft, technologically, were ahead of Amazon by a wide margin,” said Lu. “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.”

In other words, technical superiority might not be to your advantage if you don’t have a “killer app” that appeals to the masses. In the case of Alexa, Amazon has an open platform that can be easily integrated into third-party products. Amazon also made the effort to show consumers the power of Alexa with the Echo speaker, and later made it more appealing to the masses with the cheaper Echo Dot.

Harman Kardon Invoke
The Harman Kardon Invoke smart speaker uses Cortana AI

Lu went on to add that Amazon also got it right by making Alexa an “AI-first” product, whereas Google and Microsoft started using their AI assistants primarily as an extension of a typical smartphone. Given that most of us own a smartphone, this may have seemed like a wise decision, but Lu contends that Amazon’s approach was more forward-thinking.

“The phone, in my view, is going to be, for the foreseeable future, a finger-first, mobile-first device,” said Lu. “You need an AI-first device to solidify an emerging base of ecosystems.

“[AI-first] means you interact with the technology differently from the start. It has to be voice or image recognition, facial recognition, in the first interactions. You can use a screen or touch, but that’s secondary.”

Cortana is currently available on Xbox One, Windows 10 and Microsoft’s sinking Windows Phone platform. However, Cortana’s reach beyond first-party Microsoft software/hardware hasn’t been that great. Cortana will be fully integrated into Harman Kardon’s Invoke AI smart speaker later this year, but Microsoft is still far behind Amazon’s efforts with Echo and Alexa (which is supported by the vast majority of “smart home” devices on the market).