Sunday, 14 January 2018

Victory in the virtual assistant battle seems to be in sight

The battle of the virtual assistants could be over.  This battle started on the smartphone but progressed, in 2017, to smart speakers and home automation.  On smartphone, your virtual assistant could be activated by voice or touch, answer questions, read email, advise on the weather, provide directions, tell you about your appointments and much more.

The technology was based on the idea that consumers are no longer storing their data on their PC or on a memory card inside their mobile phone but in the cloud. In this instance for "cloud" substitute Google, Apple or Microsoft.

Apple's Siri was one of the first. It debuted on the iPhone 4S. Microsoft announced the most personal assistant on Windowsphone. The Microsoft entry was called Cortana - after the helper in it's Xbox games series Halo.  Google launched Google Now followed, in 2016, by the Google Assistant.

All of these mobile tools could talk to you or you could ask queries. In effect replacing search. The other side of all this help was that your data was now in the cloud. Your location, preferences, transport choices, work place etc. Google, for example, could now target an advert for a special offer based on where you were each lunchtime. The vast data volumes created allowed all kinds of new opportunity for services to end up being useful for consumers but also useful for the cloud service providers.

Amazon had no mobile platform so it created the Amazon Echo. A digital speaker that, among other things, could let you buy stuff from Amazon just by talking to it.

The important features of a virtual assistant is that it's always available, it's everywhere, it learns new stuff and it's genuinely useful. It also needs to understand context. So if you ask about the weather in Paris and then ask how far "it" is then the virtual assistant needs to understand what the "it" is and you still mean Paris.

Microsoft decided in 2017 that it was now out of the mobile phone market. This relegated Cortana to the PC. Google and Apple retain their virtual assistants on mobile. Amazon has effectively created a new market for an assistant in the form of the smart speaker. Moreover, both Google and Amazon have allowed people to add functions to their devices as "skills".

No one is sure where this is going. What seems to be happening though is that Microsoft is falling behind for consumers. Absence from mobile, the smart speaker market, lack of context for Cortana and lack of availability in many markets is making it less useful. it may have a second life as a business service being a virtual assistant for office 365. However, in January 2018 the virtual assistants that have most consumer traction are Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa (Echo).

Cortana won't disappear because it's really just an interface to the Microsoft Bing Search engine. It's most likely future is in the enterprise rather than in the smartphone or smart speaker.  Apple is an unknown quantity but it only seems to be interested in Siri as a phone helper for iPhone users.

Monday, 1 January 2018


There was a time when every computer had its own operating system. Then gradually, over time, the main computer operating systems got to a smaller number. This became Windows on the PC and server with Mac OS and varieties of Unix/Linux. For most computer users, 90% of PCs ran Windows.

When mobile phones started connecting to the Internet a whole fresh set of operating systems turned up including Android (a Linux variant), IOS for iPhone and iPad, Windowsphone for Windows devices. It was recognised that mobile devices would not be using a keyboard and mouse but fingers or a pen-like device. For users, this meant an OS that would respond to gestures.

Most people see Microsoft in a poor light compared to Apple. Apple styles itself as an innovator and, in terms of the iPhone, this was true. However, when Microsoft released Windows 8 it had an almost revolutionary aim. It was going to create a PC interface and applications environment that was touch first and worked on mobile. Windows 8 and Windowsphone 8 would be one core OS would run on both devices. With Windows 10 Mobile the Universal Windows Program (UWP) ecosystem allowed developers to create software on PC, Mobile, Xbox One and other places that were essentially the same.

The vision was largely killed because they lost the mobile battle, Windows 8 was received poorly and their application store never took off. Whether UWP will succeed is still an open question. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, described merging PC with mobile as a cross between a fridge and a stove. You could say he wasn't impressed.

In 2017 Google is trying to bring Android apps to ChromeOS. Similarly, rumour has it that Apple is trying to bring IOS apps to Mac OS X.

There are problems with trying to get apps that normally run on a 5.5-inch screen with touch to work on a 14 or 15-inch laptop. Bear in mind that Apple has no touch interface on any PC. What does seem to be true is a degree of merging the mobile application experience with the conventional PC. Who would have guessed that Microsoft's idea for Windows 8 may become the mainstream in the next couple of years across all PCs? I am sure that Apple, rather than Microsoft, will ultimately claim the credit.