There was a lot of news last week in the AI and voice assistant technology segments and it keeps coming. Two acquisitions were reported (one announced by Cisco and one leaked about Apple) and Amazon announced both the forthcoming Echo Show and rolled-out an Alexa calling and messaging feature. We also heard from VoiceLabs about the first official advertising solution designed explicitly for Amazon Alexa.
However, the big event last week was Microsoft’s developer conference Build. Voicebot reached out to a few developers that are working with the Cortana voice assistant and attended Build to get a first-hand perspective.
- Eric Olson is the developer of Complibot and Insultibot among other popular Alexa Skills.
- Elvis Wolcott is the developer of Random Rumble Generator for Alexa.
- Ahmed Bouzid is the founder and CEO of Witlingo.
What Are Your Impressions of the Cortana Skills Kit in Relation to Offerings from Amazon’s Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) and Actions on Google?
Eric Olson: It’s interesting. On the one hand it feels more like ASK than Actions did, but it also has this interesting undercurrent where it seems like it’s not sure if voice-first is an important idea to push. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s certainly a difference. For an Alexa developer, the feeling is like “oh, yeah, this is just like Alexa, except where it’s not.” Alexa obviously has a much more mature feature set, but Cortana ends up having a bit of extra flexibility in areas where a GUI is involved, due to it’s background as the windows assistant.
Elvis Wolcott: It definitely seems better thought out. I had some questions when it wasn’t as prominent in the keynote as I had expected, but everything the team has said suggests that they are not only aware of the issues developers are having on the other platforms, but they are actively approaching them critically to come to the best solution. It seems like they are the most developer centric. Cortana isn’t supposed to sell you on prime or serve as a future outlet for 1st party advertising. They envision Cortana acting as a bridge between other environments and the windows experience and as a valuable tool. As such they are more eager to work closely with developers in order to supply their platform with content that is valuable to the users.
What are one or two issues in particular they have addressed in CSK that the other platforms still need to fix?
Wolcott: The cards are exponentially better and allow you to better curate the user experience.
As a voice application developer, what intrigues you about CSK and the Microsoft approach?
Ahmed Bouzid: Nothing intrigues me as far as the CSK, but what interests me is the opportunity to think about use cases beyond the home. I want to see what they will do to enable their partners to leverage their Dynamics CRM and their Office Suite. There is a massive opportunity to deliver value there.
What were your impressions of Build this year?
Wolcott: It’s been great. Having access to both members of the teams behind it and some of their partners has provided me with valuable insight into the roadmap a new approaches and tools around building for voice.
Olson: Microsoft really killed it in terms of their AI and cognitive toolkit stuff, some of which (LUIS) will be helpful for Cortana skills at some point down the line. The other thing that wowed me was the number of people at the intro to Cortana skills session. That was the most packed breakout I attended, and people were already asking a lot of the same questions (monetization, top level invocations, etc) that we regularly hear on the Alexa side.
What do you think about the new Cortana Skills Kit and how it fits into the broader Microsoft strategy?
Bouzid: Presence in the Voice First, eyes free, hand free, [application segment] is quickly evolving into a table stakes imperative. Microsoft, who offered tools for building voice applications since way back in the early 90s through their SAPI product, is finally catching up. I expect them to leverage their massive install base and anticipate them to focus on Enterprise use cases (CRM, ERP, email, communications via Skype), where they are much stronger than Amazon and Google.