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Microsoft declares war on Amazon's cloud services

Daniel Howley

Microsoft (MSFT) kicked off its annual Build developers conference in Seattle on Wednesday with a showcase seemingly designed to prove the company has what it takes to fight back against Amazon’s (AMZN) own cloud business.

To do that, the Windows maker is bringing all of its capabilities to bear including its artificial intelligence systems and millions of users.

According to Microsoft’s chief marketing officer, Chris Capossela, Microsoft wants to be the company that helps ensure all of your devices get online. That includes everything from your smartphone and PC to your car and connected speaker — devices Microsoft refers to as existing on “the edge.”

“There will be something like 25 billion smart devices connected to the internet in the next few years,” he said. “When we talk about the edge, it isn’t about a single device. It’s about how technology works across all of these devices.”

A rival for Amazon’s Alexa

One of the major themes Microsoft repeatedly touched on during the first day of its conference was artificial intelligence. And the most tangible benefit of that had do with the company’s Cortana voice assistant.

Available through Windows 10 as well as Android and iOS apps, Cortana is a direct rival of Amazon’s Alexa, not to mention Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Assistant and Apple’s (AAPL) Siri.

Of the the four assistants, Amazon’s is easily the most popular and useful. To help compete with that, Microsoft announced its new Cortana Skills Kit, which will allow developers to create skills for the voice assistant.

Skills are voice commands that allow you to interact with apps using Alexa via voice commands. So far, Amazon has the lead in this area with more than 10,000 skills available to consumers. Microsoft, however, is hoping to close the gap.

So far, the software giant’s offerings are pretty slim. At launch, Cortana has just 48 skills including the ability to order Domino’s and check the forecast through Dark. That number should, however, grow with time.

“We think of Cortana as not just the personal digital assistant that comes with Windows 10,” Capossela said. “We think of Cortana as the personal digital assistant that really travels with you wherever you go and whatever devices you are using, whether it’s an iPhone or an Android phone, whether it’s a car that you get into to drive to work, whether it’s speakers that you have in your house.”

He added: “So we think of it as an ingredient in many third-party hardware products, not just the things that Microsoft might build.”

How Cortana and Amazon are changing the workplace

Beyond Cortana, Microsoft touched on how it’s branching out into workplace safety. In a stage demo, the company showed how its machine vision software can recognize objects on worksites that might cause safety hazards. Another demonstration showed how the same technology could be used to identify hospital patients who are overexerting themselves and alert staff members.

 “That’s a very interesting scenario that hasn’t gotten much attention, and yet the injuries in most workplaces are totally avoidable,” Capossela said.

Amazon has a similar technology called Amazon Rekognition. The company says businesses can use its software to scan employees’ faces and verify their identities, or be paired with security cameras in stores to monitor customer sentiment.

From a consumer standpoint, that kind of Orwellian oversight sounds downright creepy. But Capossela doesn’t see it that way.

“We are very optimistic with what artificial intelligence can do,” he said. “We think that it really can be used to amplify human ingenuity and everything we do we will do in a trustworthy way.”

The war for the cloud won’t end at Build, though. Connected software like this is still a relatively new concept, and will continue to evolve in the coming years.

What’s more, this two-way fight is quickly becoming a three-way battle as Google’s enterprise cloud services gain steam. But one thing is certain: The winner of this race will help shape the way the world connects to their devices.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.