Microsoft's New 'Cognitive' Play Strays Onto IBM Watson's Turf

At its Build 2016 conference, Microsoft introduced its latest entry to address the "cognitive era" and it lands into competition with IBM's Watson.

IBM Watson

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the opening day keynote of its Build 2016 conference here, Microsoft used the terms "cognitive" and "intelligence" liberally to signal a new direction for the company.

Although the exact wording of the company's goals were a bit different, the tone and sentiment sounded a lot like what IBM Chairman, CEO and President Ginni Rometty talks about when she declares this the "cognitive era" of computing, where IBM, with its Watson cognitive computing system, has taken something of a head start over competitors.

However, not to be outdone, Microsoft has been working on cognitive technology as well in its research groups. At Build, the company introduced a new cloud-based Cortana Intelligence Suite that introduces cognitive technology for developers to use in building systems. Microsoft also announced a preview of its new Bot Framework, which enables organizations to build intelligent agents, known as Bots.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said this is a new era of conversational intelligence that Microsoft is attempting to facilitate, to enable developers to create more personal computing for every customer, business and industry.

Nadella debuted Microsoft's vision of Conversations as a Platform as a new emerging platform that is at the intersection of all of Microsoft’s major ambitions, including cloud, Office and Windows.

“It’s a simple concept, yet it’s very powerful in its impact,” he said in his keynote. “It is about taking the power of human language and applying it more pervasively to all of our computing -- and to infuse into our computing and our computers, intelligence about us and our context. By doing so, we think this can have as profound an impact as the previous platform shifts have had – whether it be GUI, whether it be the Web or touch or mobile.”

In a blog post on the new direction and on the new Cortana Intelligence Suite, Joseph Sirosh, corporate vice president of the Data Group at Microsoft, said Microsoft believes that the most impactful data-driven solutions will go beyond analytics, and will include built-in intelligence that augments an organization’s capabilities in exciting new ways.

"Imagine a world, where nurses and doctors use remote monitoring solutions not only to analyze a patient’s vitals such as blood pressure, weight and heart-rate, but also to interpret a patient’s mood based on speech and tone analysis during a scheduled phone conversation," Sirosh said. "Technology like this could help augment their diagnosis to better predict and prevent emergencies and have real impact on the well-being of the patient.

"Intelligent solutions such as these will not only be accessed via regular websites and mobile applications, but also through intelligent Bots that you can converse with in more contextual and natural ways, he said. “We believe that organizations creating data-driven solutions that utilize the best of big data, cloud and intelligence capabilities will be future industry leaders."

That sounds a great deal like what IBM has been doing with Watson and its Watson Developer Cloud, which runs on IBM's Bluemix cloud platform that features a catalog of more than 140 APIs, tools and services--a vast number of which are devoted to Watson.

"Only three companies have the horsepower to go the distance on this: IBM, Google and Microsoft," said Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC.

Indeed, at Build, Microsoft announced a preview of Microsoft Cognitive Services, which is a collection of intelligent APIs that allow solutions to see, hear, speak, understand and interpret our needs using natural methods of communication, Sirosh said.

"Cognitive Services expand our existing perceptual intelligence capabilities in areas such as vision, speech, text, recommendations and face detection to include new capabilities like emotion, language understanding and Bing search," he said.

IBM's Watson has all this and more, as IBM's Rometty demonstrated when she took Watson to the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

"IBM definitely had a head start with Watson with the entire industry and was developed first for on-premises use," said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "IBM has focused a lot of their efforts into the healthcare and retail vertical. IBM has also moved Watson to XaaS [Anything-as-a-Service], too."

However, "Microsoft got a later start, but Cortana was developed from the ground up to be used 'as a service,' in the cloud, and for developers across Windows and with the Xamarin acquisition, across iOS and Android, too," Moorhead said. "Microsoft gets developers more as this is their business, as IBM’s primary business is helping its enterprise customers."