Cortana Expands The Boundaries Of Search, But Will It Eventually Eat It Too?

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Google has been talking for years about “building the Star Trek computer,” a conversational machine that understands and naturally communicates answers to spoken questions. The company has been making incremental progress toward that objective. But with the launch of Cortana on the PC, Microsoft may have leaped ahead of its rival.

Microsoft’s new holographic goggles, HoloLens, and digital assistant Cortana were the undisputed stars of last week’s Windows 10 event. And as Microsoft prepares to roll the new PC operating system it’s interesting to consider the future of web search in a world of artificial intelligence and digital assistants.

(Google’s Voice Search is available on the PC but offers limited functionality. Siri is not yet on Apple’s PC operating system but will likely come to it later this year or early next year.)

As it was explained to me, Bing provides the “intelligence engine” or “intelligence fabric” at the center of Cortana. In turn Cortana is a stack of technology and capabilities, including speech recognition, natural language understanding and an index of information from which to provide answers.

Cortana is, in a sense, a new entry point for Bing as well. However Cortana, Google Now and Siri reflect the emergence of a broader usage paradigm, which transcends traditional search. That was first suggested by the appearance of Siri before Apple acquired the technology. Google Now has pushed that further with “predictive search.”

Despite being late to the party, Microsoft has denied that Cortana is a “me too” product or was a direct response to Siri or Google Now. The technology behind Cortana has been evolving within Microsoft for years, chiefly in the area of speech recognition and natural language understanding. Google has some of the same deep technology assets as Microsoft. However Apple does not; Siri is a relatively thin capability that could fall increasingly behind (without acquisitions) as the digital assistant arms race gains momentum.

Following last week’s Windows 10 announcement I had the opportunity to speak with Microsoft search engineers Ryan Gavin and Mike Calcagno. During the conversation I speculated about the future of the Bing brand and its user experience given the rise of Cortana.

“As Cortana gets better doesn’t it make Bing less and less necessary? I suggested. They didn’t buy into the premise and used an analogy to suggest how Bing and Cortana will coexist. It’s not “or;” it’s an “and” paradigm, they asserted.

“We’re opening up a new class of experiences,” said Calcagno, who likened the Bing-Cortana relationship to the way that the mobile web and apps coexist today. “We’re transforming not only what you can search but how you search.”

With its ambient listening and “Hey Cortana” wake word, Microsoft sees Cortana’s always on capability liberating search from a traditional query box. “We’re giving people access to the power of search without disrupting what people are doing.” The company also sees Cortana as a differentiator for its software and hardware across platforms.

Nonetheless, Calcagno and Gavin also don’t see a near-term Cortana takeover of search. Bing is expanding and being more deeply integrated across Windows and in other Microsoft products, such as Word.

With Cortana, however, “We’re making a long-term bet on richer interactivity and more natural interactions,” said Gavin. “We’re creating new user paradigms and bringing search into the context of what you’re already doing.”

The immediate question facing search, according to Gavin and Calcagno is, “How do you take it out of 1995 and bring more intelligence into it?” The obvious answer, in their minds, is Cortana.

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