Microsoft Responds to Alexa, Google Assistant Challenge to Cortana

Microsoft enlists Qualcomm and Synaptics as Cortana reference design partners and set sights on more smart speakers and IoT devices to show that its digital assistant remains competitive in the field.

Microsoft Cortana

Alexa and Google Assistant are making waves at CES 2018 in Las Vegas, but Microsoft is advising the industry not to count Cortana as strong contender in the digital assistant race.

A handful of PC makers, including HP, Acer and Asus, are integrating Amazon's Alexa into some of their upcoming Windows 10 PCs, a move that may help extend Alexa's reach into the business application market, a move that is separate from the Cortana-Alexa alliance Microsoft and Amazon struck in August 2017. During re:Invent 2017, Amazon unveiled Alexa for Business, an enterprise-friendly variation of the popular AI assistant.

Google Assistant, meanwhile, is making the jump to wireless headphones, cars that support Android Auto and smart display devices from JBL, Lenovo, LG and Sony. The technology will also show up in a bevy of new voice-activated speakers from Altec Lansing, Bang & Olufsen, Klipsch and others.

Although Cortana appears to be keeping a lower profile, Microsoft is reminding everyone that more devices that are compatible with its virtual assistant are on the way.

Just before CES 2018 opened its doors, the company and Johnson Controls announced that preorders for the GLAS smart thermostat would begin in March. Taking on Nest and similar devices, GLAS features a translucent OLED touchscreen and will ship with Cortana built-in, allowing home owners to regulate indoor temperature, monitor air quality and more using voice commands.

At CES, Microsoft is touting its reference design partners, including Qualcomm. The mobile chipmaker unveiled its Smart Speaker Platform, integrated hardware and software that is scheduled to ship in the first half of 2018 and is intended to give OEMs a head start on building smart speakers that work with Cortana.

Synaptics, known for biometric scanners, touchpads and other input technologies, is also offering Cortana-compatible platform to OEMs and ODMs, based on AudioSmart, the company's far-field voice digital signal processing technology. According to Synaptics, a AudioSmart-based device will be able to pick up the Cortana wake-word up to five meters away, or over 16 feet, in noisy conditions or while the device is playing music.

Two Chinese companies are also integrating Cortana into their wares, Allwinner Technology, a fabless semiconductor firm, and Tonly Electronics. Allwinner is working on voice-enabled (IoT) Internet of Things solutions and Tonly has collaborated with Microsoft on the design of Cortana devices that are optimized for Skype.

It's not the first time Cortana will be venturing into voice-enabled devices, apart from PCs and Xbox One.

In October 2016, Harman Kardon, a Samsung company, began selling the Invoke, an Echo-like smart speaker powered by Cortana. Not only does Cortana's voice pour out of the device's 360-degree speaker design when summoned, Invoke's capacitive touch control panel mimics Cortana's animated icon as it appears in Windows 10.

More devices may be on the horizon, according to Jordi Ribas, corporate vice president of AI Products at Microsoft.

"Regardless of the device or context, our goal is to put Cortana everywhere you need assistance, whether that is on your PC, phone, Xbox, mixed reality headsets, intelligent home speakers, thermostats and even more in the future," wrote Ribas in a Jan. 9 blog post. "You'll continue to see Cortana integrated on your favorite devices and services throughout the year to come."

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...