Robot Assistants: Google Inbox v. Microsoft Office 2016

The infamous paper clip - the first robot assistant (we just didn't know it at the time)
The infamous paper clip – the first robot assistant (we just didn’t know it at the time)

Last October, one of Gartner’s predictions for the digital future was that we will have robot assistants helping us perform work – not mechanical work, but office-based work such as content creation:

By 2018, 20 percent of business content will be authored by machines.

This is a bold claim – two years isn’t a long time, and 20% of office productivity is a lot of… documents and spreadsheets and presentations.

I’ve long been a fan of Google Inbox, the alternative interface to Gmail. Inbox recently announced that 10% of email replies using Google Inbox are now written by the built-in SmartReply feature – probably the biggest current implementation of a robot assistant.

The feature has just been released to the web version of Inbox.

Word 2016 Tell Me
Microsoft 2016’s Tell Me feature – reactive, not proactive

I’ve been using the latest version of Microsoft Office, 2016, at home for about 6 months, and have recently installed it on my work laptop. The main differences between the previous version of Office and 2016 are the collaborative working features – which trail far behind the Google Docs equivalent – and only work on OneDrive or Office 365 – and yet another function in the toolbar called “Tell Me”.

Word 2016 Tell me leave a comment
You want to leave a comment? Which of these dozen features would you like to use to leave a comment?

Tell Me highlights the philosophy between Microsoft and Google… Google’s Inbox provide pre-written answers to emails in Inbox – one click writes the email and sends it. With Microsoft, you still need to ask the questions such as “Leave a comment”, and you’re presented with a list of functions rather than doing it… i.e. you are still some way from achieving the functionality.


I think that Microsoft’s strategy is that Tell Me is their answer to Gartner’s robot assistant, but it’s well behind. It’s the Microsoft Office Paper Clip in a 2016 design. Google’s Inbox is the Gartner robot assistant. Microsoft has a 95% market share of office productivity software, so in order for Gartner’s prediction to come true, Microsoft Office must improve significantly, and quickly, for 20% of business content to be authored by machines.

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