We compare the Cortana and Alexa AI assistants to see which smart speaker system will be worth buying: the Amazon Echo or the upcoming Harman Kardon Invoke. Here's how Microsoft and Amazon's smart assistants stack up in 2017.
You may have heard of Amazon's Alexa. You might even call her name a good few times a day, as she acts as your robot home slave. What you might not be so familiar with is Microsoft's Cortana - well, outside of popular game franchise Halo, at least.
Microsoft adopted the name of Halo’s AI character for its own virtual assistant, Cortana. We've been using Cortana for years now, first on Windows Phone handsets and more recently on Windows PCs, where she helps out with everyday tasks.
Amazon’s Alexa is rapidly invading our homes inside the Echo speaker, but she isn't alone. The Google Assistant is a direct rival, packed inside the Google Home speaker, while Apple is expected to follow very shortly with its own Siri smart speaker.
Microsoft’s Cortana is therefore making a similar move to keep up. A new speaker platform from Harman Kardon called Invoke is set to hit the UK in 2017, sporting Cortana's smarts to help you perform hands-free tasks.
But can Cortana’s move into a physical speaker help to push her to the same high levels of popularity as Amazon’s Echo did for its Alexa assistant? Let us compare Cortana and Alexa for a clearer picture of which speaker system might be best for you.
Cortana knows more about users than Alexa
Despite Alexa getting into homes early with the Echo speaker, Microsoft already has a huge base of users thanks to Windows OS. Recent versions of Windows come with the Cortana AI built in, so that's lots of people who use her regularly on their home computers.
Thanks to advanced machine learning, Cortana will be able to respond to a user across different devices like a Windows 10 tablet, PC, in-car system or Harman Kardon's Invoke speaker. In each case she will respond to voice commands and offer the same level of service, tapping directly into your personal accounts to access whatever info you need.
This is something the Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri also hope to capitalise on, with links to your personal mail, calendars and the rest on your mobile devices. Sadly Alexa can't compete in this area. Amazon does have its Fire tablets and Fire TV devices, but not the same diverse range of products running the same AI, with that level of access.
Of course, perhaps that element of privacy could end up being a positive for some?
Alexa can respond to more commands - for now
Amazon has definitely got the head start on the smart home assistant front, with the Echo speakers hitting stores months before the Invoke was even rumoured. For that reason the Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Look can already understand loads of commands and respond in turn - to check travel situations, control your lights and heating, offer up recipes, play music and plenty more besides.
However, Microsoft has announced a Cortana Skills Kit will be made available to apps developers, which could make the AI a serious threat. This will allow developers to easily make their software work with Cortana voice controls, rapidly expanding her abilities (in theory). Crucially, this also allows for current Alexa Skills to be ported across to Cortana. Microsoft's smarts could be a devastating move, which gets Cortana up to speed and competing with Alexa for app support in no time.
So where Alexa can currently control smart lighting from the Philips Hue line, speakers from Sonos, Nest home heating and more, Cortana could soon be just as capable as a smart home hub controller.
Alexa comes on a better selection of devices
The Amazon Echo is a really popular speaker as it works well for an audio hub and has that seven microphone array for really accurate voice recognition, from anywhere in a room.
Of course, Harman Kardon has been working on high-quality speakers for yonks now and that’s a tough level for Amazon to compete with in terms of audio quality.
Amazon will no doubt offer a more high-end Echo in the near future, but Cortana will also likely appear in more affordable levels of hardware before long. That said, Amazon is expanding in some interesting new directions with the likes of the Echo Look and Echo Show, which we can't see Microsoft doing.
Alexa will see as well as hear, where Cortana can’t
The Echo Look features a screen and camera as well as the voice-controlled Alexa smart assistant. While this is useful in the short term for snapping outfits, seeing what songs are playing or viewing video calls and YouTube - it could potentially be much more.
For example, this could be a way of getting cameras into your home for a more comprehensive artificial intelligence experience. Imagine an AI that is able to see and hear what’s happening in your home at any given time, to offer an even more accurate contextualised response to queries.
Cool, or scary? We know what George Orwell would have to say on the subject.
Invoke works with Skype, where Echo does not
Despite Amazon Alexa on the Echo Look offering a form of video calling, this feature is limited to those devices alone. Microsoft wants to make a difference by offering its Skype service on its smart devices, something already boasting a wide user base.
Of course the Invoke doesn’t boast video calling capabilities, but expect similar hardware to offer that feature with Cortana support in the near future. What Microsoft does have right now is Skype support across multiple devices. So if you want to tell Cortana to call someone, chances are it’ll work as they have Skype on their computer, tablet or phone. Then once the video-based hardware arrives with Cortana on-board, full Skype video calling will be possible direct through those smart speakers.
Alexa and Cortana both work in cars
Both Amazon and Microsoft have done deals with car manufacturers to get their voice assistants into vehicles. While you could just dock your phone and use whichever app you need depending on your assistant preference, some cars will have them built-in and ready to use.
The problem here is fragmentation. At the moment, Alexa comes in Ford cars and Cortana is coming to BMW cars. No doubt more deals will be done soon. But with Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant also vying for in-car space, this could get really messy.
Here’s hoping most car manufacturers can find a universal platform that runs all the assistants, so users can pick which they want to use.