In our recent video chat discussing smart speakers, we talked about Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri. Who’s missing? Cortana!
That will change soon, however. Harmon Kardon previously announced its Invoke smart speaker (shown above) powered by Microsoft’s digital assistant. The Invoke is expected to cost $199.95 when it becomes available this month: It will answer your queries, allow you to set reminders and also control your smart home devices. But you can also use your PC or your phone to do these things, and I’m not talking about Windows Phone, which is semi-officially a dead platform.
Last week, Windows Central reported that Microsoft added a Connected Home function for Cortana in Windows 10. On a hunch, I wondered if the same feature was added to Microsoft’s Cortana mobile app and sure enough, it’s there for both iOS and Android.
I downloaded Cortana for iOS on my iPhone and navigated to Cortana’s Notebook. This is where Microsoft’s digital assistant learns about your interests and also where you can link external data sources such as Skills. That’s where I found the Connected Home option.
It’s a bit limited right now, only allowing Cortana users to connect the app to Wink, Insteon, Nest, SmartThings and Philips Hue. I went through the connection process with Wink and Nest, which is similar to how it works with other apps. With Wink, for example, Cortana asks you to sign in to your Wink account and then authorize Wink to work with the app.
Once I set these up, I spoke to Cortana to control connected devices in my house and she acquiesced. Well, most of the time. Like my Google Home, Cortana can’t “see” the Z-Wave front door lock paired with my Wink. And for some reason, even though I have my Nest account connected, I can’t get Cortana to do anything with my Nest Cam yet.
But for lighting control — including for rooms or groups and for dimming — she’s up to the task. You may have better luck if you use SmartThings, Insteon or Philips Hue. There’s no audio in the above screen recording from one of my tests, but it will give you a quick idea of what types of smart home commands work and what other information Cortana can provide.
Cortana doesn’t show actual devices yet: She just displays the five supported connected home services and says “Connected”. Hopefully Microsoft expands this in the near future to actually show what devices are connected and controllable. Note that after I used Cortana for iOS, I installed it on my Galaxy S8+ and saw a nifty feature: Because I had already connected my Wink and Nest accounts to Cortana on iOS, they were already connected on Android. Thank Microsoft’s cloud sync for that simplicity. And on Android, you can set Cortana to be the default digital assistant app; not so on iOS because…. Apple.
As a general digital assistant, I prefer Cortana over Siri for the same reason I lean towards Google Assistant over Alexa: I get better information when asking about different things. Chalk that up to Cortana having what I think is a better knowledge graph than Siri or Alexa. And of course, if you’re in Microsoft’s ecosystem, Cortana is excellent at getting your next appointment, sending messages and more.
But as more people work to make their home smart, Microsoft has more to do. One semi-expensive Cortana powered speaker isn’t going to cut it. Part of the reason Amazon has got Alexa in so many homes is because it offers a range of devices for different budgets. I’m willing to bet that Amazon has sold more Echo Dots than the more expensive, full sized Amazon Echo that’s more than three times the price of Dot. Put another way: If you want to have multiple rooms in your home for smart device control, why spend $180 or more per room when you can have that for much less?
Still, this is a positive step for Microsoft. Getting smart home smarts in Cortana on a Windows 10 computer makes sense due to how many people use PCs. But that solution only works when someone is at the PC and the PC is powered on, so it’s limited. Adding Cortana to potentially hundreds of millions of smartphones is a better play until Microsoft can get more partners to build Cortana-powered speakers in a range of price points.
Even so, for now Cortana smart home control on iOS and Android seems a bit limited when compared to Alexa, Google Assistant and even Siri. So I won’t be using this as a full time voice interface for my home just yet. At this point, Microsoft needs Cortana more than I do.