Alexa and Cortana have become friends. In a joint statement this morning, Amazon and Microsoft announced that their voice assistants will be able to talk to each other later this year. The announcement says:
You will be able to turn to your Echo device and say, ‘Alexa, open Cortana,’ or turn to your Windows 10 device and say, ‘Cortana, open Alexa.’
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella commented in the announcement:
Ensuring Cortana is available for our customers everywhere and across any device is a key priority for us. Bringing Cortana’s knowledge, Office 365 integration, commitments, and reminders to Alexa is a great step toward that goal.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos added:
The world is big and so multifaceted. There are going to be multiple successful intelligent agents, each with access to different sets of data and with different specialized skill areas. Together, their strengths will complement each other and provide customers with a richer and even more helpful experience. It’s great for Echo owners to get easy access to Cortana.
Bringing B2C and B2B Voice Leaders Together
The arrangement brings two category leaders together. A 2016 Voicebot analysis suggested that Amazon, Microsoft, Google, IBM, Hound and others would logically begin pursuing specialization in either business-to-consumer (B2C) or business-to-business (B2B) use cases. The voice assistant use case landscape is so large that no one solution will be expert in everything in the near term, or ever. As a result, the big players will focus in on where they have particular assets and expertise. Microsoft has deep roots and capabilities in business productivity. Amazon is a retailer that knows consumers. The B2B and B2C alignment seems obvious.
A New Opportunity for Microsoft
The arrangement unites the two leading voice assistants in each category. Amazon has led in consumer adoption of smart speakers with somewhere near 15 million devices sold across its Echo product line. Microsoft claims to have 145 million monthly active Cortana users. Microsoft has big numbers among business users but has not been able to gain significant traction in consumer use cases. Qi Lu is now Baidu’s COO, but previously led AI efforts at Microsoft. He said in a WIRED article earlier this month:
I worked on Cortana four and a half years ago. At the time we all were like, ‘Amazon, yeah, that technology is so far behind.’ But one thing I learned is that in this race to AI, it’s actually more about having the right application scenarios and the right ecosystems. Google and Microsoft, technologically, were ahead of Amazon by a wide margin. But look at the AI race today. The Amazon Alexa ecosystem is far ahead of anybody else in the United States. It’s because they got the scenario right. They got the device right. Essentially, Alexa is an AI-first device.
Microsoft has impressive technology underlying Cortana as we saw earlier this month when researchers surpassed yet another speech recognition accuracy milestone. However, the lack of a mobile platform to reach consumers and the much announced, but delayed smart speaker from Harman Kardon has left the company without easy access to consumers in many of their everyday use cases. The agreement with Amazon puts Cortana within easy reach of more than 10 million consumers right away.
A Big Win for Amazon
The announcement is probably an even bigger win for Amazon. Amazon is following an Alexa-everywhere strategy. Instead of keeping the assistant only in the Amazon hardware an software ecosystem, Alexa is made available to hardware and software makers to extend the voice assistant’s reach. Microsoft is a big prize as a software partner.
Alexa today has no meaningful access to the business user environment today. There may be 145 million monthly Cortana users, but there are more than one billion users of Microsoft Office and PCs running Windows. Microsoft users will soon be able to access Alexa to control smart home devices, engage with Alexa skills and …. wait for it …. shop from the comfort of their office. You can bet the integration will be complete prior to Cyber Monday, traditionally the biggest online shopping day of the Holiday season.
But wait; there’s more. Amazon is in a fierce battle with Google for leadership in the B2C voice assistant segment. The key area where Alexa trails Google Assistant is in general information queries. Google’s knowledge graph turns out to be as effective answering questions by voice as it does when typing into a browser. By contrast, Alexa knows very little. Cortana, on the other hand, is a close match to Google in information query prowess.
An analysis by Stone Temple showed that Alexa and Siri trailed Google Assistant by a large margin when asked a series of 5,000 general knowledge questions. However, Cortana was a close match to Google Assistant. This is not surprising since Cortana has the other big knowledge graph based on its Bing assets. It is easy to visualize Amazon Echo users defaulting to asking Cortana for answers to general knowledge questions and using Alexa for skills and shopping. The integration with Cortana provides Amazon with better feature performance and access to hundreds of millions of new users almost instantly. The agreement with Microsoft has the ingredients of a great strategic move.
Will This Lead to a Service Orientation for Voice Assistants
This may also be the first move toward service orientation for voice assistants. Web architecture for years has been migrating toward viewing every application as a service that other applications and services can access. That means a user need can be fulfilled quickly by the most effective service even if it is external to application engaged by the user. Alexa will treat Cortana as a knowledge service for its users to access. Cortana will treat Alexa skills as smart home and entertainment services and Alexa itself as a shopping service. Specialization will provide more value to consumers.
The next logical evolution of this is for Alexa skills to be able to access other skills or voice applications to augment their features. When this is all seamless to the user, it will make voice assistants more powerful, efficient and effective.