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How Microsoft's Cortana is taking on Amazon's Alexa

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Microsoft (MSFT) is coming for Amazon’s (AMZN) Alexa in a big way. During the Windows maker’s Build developers conference in Seattle on Wednesday, Microsoft’s senior product marketing manager Laura Jones showed off how the company’s own virtual assistant, Cortana, can work in your home, on your phone and even in your car.

During a on-stage demo, Jones used Harman Kardon’s new Invoke device, the first Cortana-powered smart home speaker, to ask what her schedule for the day looked like.

Cortana fired back with two events on Jones’ schedule, and since the assistant can communicate with her vehicle, told Jones to leave 10 minutes early to stop at a gas station and fuel up.

That’s some impressive tech. But Microsoft isn’t alone in being able to communicate with your car. Amazon’s Alexa is compatible with Ford’s Sync 3 system and lets you do things like remotely start your car from within your home when it’s cold outside, check your schedule and order items through Amazon.com. And if you have the automatic in-car diagnostic device, Alexa can tell you how much gas you have in your vehicle.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at the company’s Build developers conference.

Microsoft also showed how Cortana can interface with its Teams workplace software. In her demo Jones explained how the voice assistant can work in your car’s infotainment system and tell if you’re running behind for a meeting. The app can then automatically inform your coworkers that you’ll be late via Teams.

Jones then called into the meeting. When she entered the meeting room, Cortana automatically switched off her call to ensure she didn’t interrupt her coworkers.

Of course, Jones’ demo was just that, a demo. The entire point was to show that Cortana is growing and evolving. And to do that, Microsoft is rolling out its Cortana Skills Kit as a public preview.

Using the software will allow developers to create skills, another name for Cortana’s capabilities, and publish them to Microsoft’s Bot Framework for Windows 10, Android, iOS and Cortana-powered speakers like the Invoke.

The idea is to get developers to create new functionalities for Cortana, so the voice assistant becomes more useful for consumers.

Still, Cortana is well behind Amazon’s Alexa in terms of capabilities. Amazon regularly touts Alexa’s more than 10,000 skills, which let you do everything from call an Uber, order a pizza and turn on your smart home devices. Alexa’s access to Amazon’s music service and the ability to purchase items with your voice simply adds to the assistant’s lead.

Then there are Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Home and Assistant, which allow you to access your Google account information using your voice. Apple (AAPL) is also expected to announce a similar device for its Siri voice assistant at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June.

If Microsoft wants Cortana to truly compete with Alexa, it needs developers to begin building these skills now.

The kind of ubiquity through which these devices work can be offputting to some consumers, though. To assuage those concerns, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella specifically told the audience that developers need to ensure that they create systems that aren’t too invasive like in George Orwell’s “1984” or simply serve as distractions from the real world like in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

“I do believe that it is up to us to ensure that some of the more dystopian scenarios don’t come true,” Nadella said.

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