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Microsoft's mobile OS isn't Windows -- it's Cortana

Bots are the new apps, if developers embrace them.
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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella didn't mention Windows Mobile once during the opening-day Build developer conference keynote yesterday, nor did any of the other executives who took the stage. But that doesn't mean the company lacks a mobile strategy: The presentation offered a bold look at how Microsoft thinks we'll soon be using our phones. Instead of digging through apps, we'll just use natural language to tell our phones what we need to do -- or, they'll be smart enough to know what we want, when we want it.

We'll have bots to thank for that, and Microsoft wants developers to embrace them, the same way hordes of developers embraced iOS apps back in 2008. "We want every developer to build experts for Cortana," Nadella said onstage Wednesday. "We want all developers to build bots." Because of the cross-platform nature of both Cortana and the many communication apps Nadella cited yesterday, Microsoft's bot army will work on whatever device you want to use.

The company debuted a host of tools yesterday to make that happen, including the Microsoft Bot Framework, which will let developers build bots and deploy them across the various communication platforms we use. That framework solves an important problem for Microsoft -- namely, making it easier for developers to hook their bot into a variety of different platforms without having to rebuild it every time. "We started with a technical problem," engineer Lili Cheng told reporters in a press briefing Wednesday. "Can we make it really easy if you already have a bot to connect it to all the places people talk?"

Microsoft is also offering the computing power to make it easy for developers to build bots without worrying about how to make them smart enough to answer various queries and communicate with users. All of Microsoft's years of experience with machine learning as well as voice and language recognition are at a developer's disposal. "We don't expect every company to have these tools," said Bing VP Derrick Connell at the press briefing. "They can just focus on having a good back-end experience."

That ease of development was one major tentpole of Microsoft's strategy, but it doesn't get at why the company is making a big bet on bots. As Cheng and Connell explained, it's an extension of what Microsoft has been doing for years with Bing and Cortana. The company is getting better and better at understanding natural language and has a massive knowledge graph with Bing that few other companies (except Google) can rival.

From there, it's a matter of taking the natural language capability of Cortana and giving it a wider variety of specialized data sources to tap into. That's where the bots come in. "We're building on 10 years of Bing, more than 10 years of speech and language modeling," said Connell. "We think we have a lot of good assets, but we're entering a new environment where we can put it all together."

That means making conversation a new user interface, something Nadella alluded to throughout his keynote. "Humans have conversations all the time; all of those conversations can become more efficient," Connell said. He then gave examples of the three types of conversations Microsoft envisions users having. For starters, there's obviously human-to-human conversation, and Connell envisioned bots being able to augment that conversation by bringing up relevant info based on analyzing the text in the messages themselves.

There's also human-to-agent, which is what happens already when we talk to Cortana or Siri or Google. Lastly, emerging human-to-bot conversations will let Cortana become even more useful. "Today we can bridge to websites on mobile or PC, but as bots come in that [interaction] can become much richer," Connell said.

Cheng was quick to note that just because Microsoft showed off lots of chat bots today, the goal isn't to flood users with a bunch of computers to converse with. "We want to make software more conversational without meaning it has to be the example we showed up on stage [today]," she said. She went on to add that most software products have a conversation with their users. "They just don't visibly converse back all the time," she said.

Pulling all these threads together and it comes clear that Microsoft has fully accepted that it won't be the third mobile platform in a traditional sense -- something that's been fairly clear since Nadella took over in 2014 and immediately started moving Microsoft in a more cross-platform direction. However, it's getting on the bot train early, and if the company's vision of conversational computing becomes more prevalent in the coming years, Microsoft could be well-positioned to capitalize on the trend. There are a lot of challenges that could stop Cortana from being our steward into a future where helpful bots get things done for us. But if nothing else, the company isn't late to the party like it was to the world of smartphone apps.

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