The future belongs to the tech company that best harnesses artificial intelligence. A.I. is vital to understanding what consumers want and thus better design products for them. It is crucial in attracting consumers by delivering them the most customized and attractive content at the point they want it. And it is essential to providing cloud services that help corporations increase their efficiency and improve the way they operate.
Microsoft, like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, is betting big on A.I. The company has some definite A.I. strengths. But it also is missing an important piece: widely used mobile technology. Without that, it will be tough or impossible for Microsoft to win the A.I. war.
Let’s start off with the company’s A.I. strengths. The most important one is data. Machine learning, A.I.’s cutting edge, requires vast amounts of data, and Microsoft has plenty of it, thanks to its Bing search engine, its Windows and Office users and it's LinkedIn social media site. Although Bing is a distant also-ran to Google’s search engine, it’s an excellent foundation for A.I., because the second-most popular search engine still yields plenty of raw data. Larry Cornett, a former executive for Yahoo's search engine, says of Bing: “Having hundreds of millions of queries a day is exactly what you need to power huge artificial intelligence systems.”
Another strong advantage is Microsoft’s direct-to-consumer and direct-to-business outlets for its A.I. work: more than 500 million active Windows 10 devices with the A.I.-based personal assistant Cortana built in. And Microsoft Office, which remains the dominant suite on the planet, increasingly has A.I. built into it for things such as proofreading and automatic language translations. All this not only helps Microsoft deliver the benefits of A.I. to its customers but also lets the company fine-tune its A.I. algorithms by getting feedback on how well they work.
But Microsoft is missing something very big in A.I. as well: a significant mobile presence. Google and Apple, via Android and iOS, gather tremendous amounts of useful data for their A.I. work. And gathering the data is just the starting point. Hundreds of millions of people around the world use the A.I.-powered Siri, Google Assistant and Google Now on their mobile devices. So Google and Apple can continue to improve their A.I. work, based on how people use their devices. Given that the future (and to a great extent, the present) is mobile, all this means serious problems for Microsoft in A.I.