Siri, Google Now, Alexa, Cortana – The Rise Of Digital Assistants

Ten years ago, a mobile phone was a device that helped you call or send a message to someone over a cellular wireless network. At best, a business PDA (personal digital assistant) was a heavier phone-cum-portable PC that let you run the internet and helped you manage your e-mail over a lagging and buggy custom e-mail program.

Its barely been a decade since those bulky PDAs went out of fashion and the classic phones of the time have more or less disappeared. When Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone, it was the start of a revolution that was going to change the user-device dynamic forever!

As the iPhone evolved, along came the personal digital assistant trend back. Apple built in Siri in iOS, which could be used to find local listings, set reminders, etc. A year later, Google was testing Google Now on select phones. By the time Google rolled out Android Lollipop 5.0, Google users had come to love the digital assistant who could be used as a search engine, but through voice. With Microsoft’s announcement of Cortana with its Windows 8.1 phones, the personal digital assistant space turned into a full-blown war.

Apple clearly had the more evolved application of all and the early-bird advantage. But Google, being Google, wasn’t far behind. It made up for lost ground fairly quickly when it introduced the “Ok Google” voice command to call out Google Now assistant. This facilitated hands-free search and conversation with the digital assistant. Others are coming on-board with this idea only now.

Cortana, on the other hand, was far behind the two trying to play catch-up. Cortana’s moment of reckoning came when it announced that Android and Apple users had the choice to download Cortana on their phones and replace their native digital assistants. But Cortana’s evolution over the last 12 months has been stunning. Bringing together Siri’s realistic voice assistance abilities and Google Now’s suggestions-based systems (Google Now has cards), Cortana has now also been packed into Windows 10 OS which is being rolled out for free to genuine Windows systems. That is a move Microsoft can totally bank on if Cortana keeps moving in the right direction as it now is.

A peculiar addition to the digital assistants space came from Amazon earlier this year when Amazon launched Amazon Echo, its universal voice assistance device which relied on the command word – Alexa. Alexa has now been made available as an independent digital assistance app for other systems. While Amazon’s entry to this space is rather late, it has its own device, an independent service and frankly knowing Amazon’s abilities, it won’t stay behind for too long.

Expect the domain to further heat-up when Facebook brings out its digital assistant (currently codenamed MoneyPenny) as a way to ask friends and other Facebook users for information and product reviews/prices/etc. Once Facebook makes the digital assistant socially au courant, one can expect others to notch up the game too.

Google will ofcourse bank on its user data (searches, YouTube video history, location history, Google+ interests, etc.), while Amazon could replicate and integrate the MoneyPenny model depending on its users’ buying patterns. The ‘dead-end’ situation might actually hit Apple and Microsoft as making social media-viable assistants might be difficult for them. Apple does not have a user data repository like Google, nor can Microsoft bank on its Bing search records, given its low (and casual) usage.

Even more important though for Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook right now would be to create able digital assistants that can give users a seamless and consistent performance across platforms and deliver as accurate assistance as possible.

Signing off,
Amit Jadhav,


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