CXO

Could Cortana replace Windows one day?

Microsoft entered the fray of digital assistants with Cortana, a competitor to Apple's Siri and Google Now. Could Cortana ultimately be a more important product than Windows?

It's interesting to watch a new CEO's strategy begin to transition from discussion to execution. IT leaders are witnessing such a shift at Microsoft. Former CEO Steve Ballmer made Windows Everywhere the cornerstone of his strategy, leveraging the entrenched position of Windows and Microsoft Office on the desktop to gain traction in mobile, an increasingly important platform that Microsoft essentially missed. Going by market share of Windows Phones, this strategy essentially failed, and current CEO Satya Nadella has not only abandoned Windows Everywhere but is seemingly focusing the organization away from staples Windows and Office.

A post-OS era

Windows, and the operating system itself, are quickly becoming little more than gateways to internet-based applications. This was a boon for Microsoft in the 1990's, when a PC was the primary gateway to the internet and web apps were in their infancy. But in the modern era, a user can access a consistent set of apps and a largely similar computing experience whether they're running a Windows 10 desktop, an iPad, or an Android phone.

Intriguingly, even functions that were once core elements of the user experience are moving away from the physical OS installed on the device. This started with simple web searches that were eventually dominated by Google, and is now extending to digital assistants that can search data on our devices, schedule appointments, and perform increasingly complex tasks. While in their infancy and in some cases little more than a novelty, these assistant platforms have further moved the epicenter of computing away from the device, as the intelligence and computing power behind these assistants is largely cloud-based.

A liberated assistant

In an historically unprecedented move, Cortana is one of the few digital assistants that's been liberated from a single platform. Apple's Siri is limited to the company's mobile devices, while Google Now lacks Microsoft's sophisticated desktop integration. The integration is far from perfect outside its native Windows, but it seems that Microsoft is attempting to make Cortana ubiquitous across platforms, much in the way that Google made its search capabilities into what amounted to a cross-platform standard.

While Cortana and its fellow assistants are not yet irreplaceably useful, there is increasing evidence that the next computing platforms will evolve well beyond desktops and mobile phones, and voice interaction will become critical. If I'm wearing a pair of augmented reality glasses working on an assembly line, voice control makes far more sense than awkward taps or fidgeting with non-existent virtual controls. Similarly, as assistants get more sophisticated, it's not a stretch to imagine telling Cortana to "Ask Bob when he'll have the client presentation ready" being much easier than typing up an email or text message.

Just as the web browser made the desktop OS less relevant, a truly capable digital assistant relegates our beloved smartphones to a similar fate, and also prepares Microsoft to become the de facto interface for future computing platforms.

The enterprise play

One area where Windows and Office continue to have the most relevance is the enterprise space, where Microsoft originally cemented its dominance in desktop computing. Even as the relevance of the desktop wanes, Cortana is the best-positioned assistant to integrate deeply and compellingly with the core tools of most knowledge workers. If I could ask a digital assistant to "Find all the PowerPoints about IoT" or to "Get me flight options to San Jose next week using the corporate travel provider" it would save me countless hours.

Like Google's ubiquitous search, the more someone uses it, the harder it is to leave. This is true for a digital assistant, who learns more about its primary user the longer they interact. Just as with a human assistant, training takes a significant amount of time— a situation that raises the stakes in the battle for becoming a user's go-to digital assistant.

The Windows ecosystem certainly has several more years of lucrative revenue and enterprise relevance. However, watch Microsoft and how it deploys and enhances Cortana in an attempt to capture the next generation of computing interfaces.

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About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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