Microsoft has an ambitious new plan to take on Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant

Microsoft harman kardon invoke cortanaHarmanThe Harman Invoke, a Microsoft Cortana-powered rival to the Amazon Echo.

Amazon and Google have clearly staked their claims in the burgeoning market for virtual digital assistants — Amazon’s Alexa, especially, has become something of a phenomenon, with the Amazon Echo devices leading the market.

But Microsoft, that other Washington-based tech titan, has its own plans to conquer the burgeoning market for voice. Just this week, Microsoft unveiled the Invoke, a Cortana-powered Echo rival, manufactured by Samsung subsidiary Harman Kardon.

And at the Microsoft Build conference in Seattle on Wednesday, HP and Intel officially signed on to help create Cortana-based hardware, too, opening the door for, say, a Microsoft-powered competitor to Amazon’s new Echo Show gadget. Plus, Microsoft officially opened up Cortana to outside apps, so you can tell it to order you a pizza from Domino’s, for example.

In the past, Microsoft has said that access to its vast storehouses of Microsoft Office and LinkedIn data will help set Cortana apart from the competition. At Microsoft Build, we got our first taste of what that future looks like, as a presenter used Cortana to pull LinkedIn information on the people in her next meeting, or to set a vacation auto-responder in their email that also marked them out-of-office in her Outlook calendar.

It’s all part of one master plan, Microsoft Cortana general manager Marcus Ash tells Business Insider — a plan to use Microsoft’s existing 500 million active Windows 10 devices, its storehouses of data, and its best friends in the industry to win the voice wars.

‘Now we have permission’

Cortana, which is built into just about every Windows 10 PC and tablet, now has 141 million monthly active users. With that beachhead, Ash says, Microsoft can now start to think about new ways to access Cortana.

“We have permission to go after other devices,” says Ash.

Key to Microsoft’s approach, Ash says, is Microsoft doesn’t care if you’re using Cortana on a PC, a phone, or an Echo-style smart speaker. It similarly doesn’t care if you speak your commands, or type them — Windows 10 and the Cortana smartphone apps both support typing out your queries, instead of speaking them. It’s more important to Microsoft that no matter how you use it, Cortana can deliver the information you need.

Microsoft windows cortana surface proMicrosoftCortana is available on a plethora of devices.

“We can set consistency across the experience,” says Ash. “We want customers to have the choice.”

The point of new gadgetry like the Invoke, says Ash, is simply to provide more of that choice, and new ways for people to interact with Cortana. That’s where the deals with HP and Intel come in.

Partnering up

As demonstrated by Amazon’s new Echo Show, tech titans see a certain demand for voice assistants complimented by screens, the better to show you security camera footage or video chat with your friends.

Ash agrees with the notion, saying that “some things are just better on a screen.” That’s why Microsoft made Cortana available from the lock screen on its Surface Studio PC, so you can shout “Hey Cortana” at it from across the room — basically turning the computer you might already have in your home into an Amazon Echo-like experience.

Now, Ash says, Microsoft is letting its partners “take the lead” and put their own “unique spin” on other ways to interact with Cortana.

Echo ShowAmazonAmazon’s Echo Show demonstrates how video and voice assistants can go together.

The Invoke is an example of that, Ash says: Harman’s specialty is in audio, so the Invoke speaker has great sound quality, which is important given that it can make and receive Skype calls. Looking to the future, and merely speculating, HP could hypothetically make tiny touchscreen PCs running Windows and powered by Cortana. Intel, for its part, is helping with things like always-on sound processing.

And as for why these hardware players should want to build with Cortana, he says, it all has to do with its strong belief in the cross-device experience. If a partner builds a Cortana-powered smart speaker, it means that it will already integrate with the Cortana that’s on those 500 million Windows 10 PCs, making the ecosystem better for everyone.

Microsoft recognises that some hardware manufacturers are already building Alexa-powered hardware, and perhaps even their own Alexa apps to go with it. Ash says that Microsoft is readying developer tools to help them bring over whatever investments with voice they have to Cortana, smoothly and easily.

“We want you to bring that over,” says Ash.

Get the latest Microsoft stock price here.

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