Coupling of Alexa and Cortana Will Show Whether Users Really Need Integration


Digital personal assistants Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana have joined forcesOpens a new window to offer users the best of both bots. From last week the two voice-activated assistants have extended access to the other’s services, so users can command the Amazon bot: “Alexa, open Cortana,” while Windows users can say: “Hey Cortana, open Alexa.”

Admittedly, this seems a little clunky. A demo of the Alexa/Cortana integrationOpens a new window produced by the two companies earlier this year shows the combination is far from seamless, but this is the first time two digital assistants have worked in tandem.

Accessing one through the other allows users to make the most of their combined services. Alexa can be used to order goods online via Amazon, or to control household functions like adjusting central heating or controlling lights. Cortana’s selling point is its integration with Microsoft Office, Outlook email and other desktop software, allowing users to access and respond to their emails or set up calendar events. The ability to access both sets of services extends the functionality of each, but doesn’t extend yet to services like music streaming and audio books: feedback from the test stage will be interpreted by both companies, who will then tailor further service offerings.

Champion Assistants

The integration was first announced a year ago, and in introducing the demo of the integration at the Build conference last May, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, said: “We want to make it possible for our customers to get the most out of their personal digital assistants, not to be bound to some single walled garden and for developers to have access to the maximum number of users.”

While the test integration is confined to the US for the moment, it is expected to expand to the rest of the world in time. The long-term plan is to create a system that can take on the might of Apple’s Siri digital assistant (active on over half a billion mobile devices) and Google Assistant, which is available on more than 400 million devicesOpens a new window . These two digital assistants have the advantage of being embedded in Apple iOS phones and Android smartphones, so they are ubiquitous. Rival voice assistants have to work hard to match this coverage.

Microsoft Cortana was originally developed for the discontinued Windows phone, and is now available on devices with the Windows 10 operating system. Amazon’s Alexa is available through the Echo smart speaker.

Breaking New Ground

The integration is a bold experiment between two tech giants who are fierce rivals in a number of fields and offer competing cloud services Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services. The competition now extends to office services with the launch of Alexa for Business, which could crunch up against some of the Microsoft Office functionality offered through Cortana, with both now offering similar services like booking meeting rooms and updating calendars. Alexa for Business was launched after the announcement of the Alexa tie-up with Cortana, with some speculating that this may have led to delays in the launch.

The tie-up shows that in a world of multiple offers and technologies, the tech giants need to be open to integration of their products to continue their expansion. The threat of ‘walled gardens’ where users are locked into different systems (a strategy that Apple seems to be pursuing) is a potential dead-end for others. The future will be about ‘frenemies’ competing on the one hand and working together on the other (dubbed ‘co-opetition’) rather than direct rivalry, since tech giants excel in certain services and recognise their weaknesses in others.

Standing Out

Alexa has so far proved the most successful of the voice assistants, attracting developers to create new ‘skills’ or app-like services. Alexa is thought to offer over 40,000 skills, though many of these are ‘zombie’ skills which are rarely (or never) used. But this number overshadows the 250 Cortana skills. It is thought that developers have been reluctant to develop services for Siri, opting for Alexa instead.

Google is forging ahead with its voice strategy, and recently showed off Google Duplex, able to carry out tasks such as booking a table at a restaurant, phoning and talking to the reservation staff. But Cortana specializes more in enabling humans than replacing them, helping users complete their existing tasks instead of taking them over.

Alexa seems to be far more advanced than Cortana, but Amazon evidently feels the Microsoft offer is significant enough to worry about. Whether there really is much demand for such integrated services, or users are content with operating their assistants separately will inevitably be discovered.