Microsoft Gets Into the Smart Home By Launching Cortana Skills Kit in Public Preview

When we heard about the Harman Kardon Invoke speaker with Cortana earlier this week, we figured that news about Alexa-like functions for Cortana had to be coming soon. Sure enough, that’s exactly what we heard about today at the Microsoft Build developers conference.

The Cortana Skills Kit is now available as a public preview for developers. From the user side, Skills will do the same things they do for Amazon Alexa — you’ll be able to ask Cortana to turn on the lights, play Spotify playlists, or order a pizza. In a convenient twist, instead of downloading Skills individually, Cortana Skills will automatically be added to Cortana as they’re approved for use by Microsoft.

For Microsoft, it’s a very important development. At the Build conference, they revealed that while there are 500 million devices running Windows 10, only 141 million users are using Cortana (granted, that doesn’t take into account users with multiple Windows 10 devices). That 141 million includes those who are simply using Cortana for text-based PC searches, so it seems likely that there aren’t as many people interacting with Cortana using speech as Microsoft would like. Cortana becoming a real smart home hub would change that.

Cortana Skills are based on Microsoft’s Bot Framework — Microsoft’s conversational AI platform. We’ve heard a lot about chatbots in recent years, but the emphasis was on text-based communication, and they haven’t caught on. Microsoft is now adding their speech recognition technology to chatbots to form Skills. That means they’ll work in the same way as bots and Alexa — you’ll still need to say the right trigger words (e.g. “Hey Cortana, tell Domino’s…”) to issue a command.

I’m using Domino’s as an example because actually, that’s one you don’t have to wait for. Microsoft has been working on Cortana Skills with a few companies behind the scenes, and Domino’s was one of them — it should now be possible to tell Cortana to deliver the goods. The public preview of Cortana Skills Kit means all developers will now have a chance to develop Skills, and Microsoft is making it easy — the company says Alexa Skills can be ported easily to Cortana.

Once Cortana’s skill set gets a little larger, she could end up more useful than Alexa. Cortana Skills will work across devices, not just speakers like Invoke (HP is also said to be making one). Any iOS, Android, or Windows 10 device with Cortana enabled can be used to make commands. On top of that, Cortana can use context to suggest commands — since I’m on that pizza kick, this would be like Cortana suggesting Domino’s if you’re driving by one.

Of course, we’ve still not achieved real artificial pizza intelligence. Let me know when an AI can use sensors in the oven to detect a burned dinner and suggest that you order a pizza, and I’ll be impressed! I’m not joking, either. I’m pretty sure all the technology needed to do that exists.

Disclaimer: Microsoft covered our travel and accommodations for the Microsoft Build developers conference. All thoughts and opinions are 100% our own.

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