UPDATE: An Amazon press release is now available too. It doesn’t add any new information, but I’ve pulled some quotes from the CEOs of Amazon and Microsoft below. –Paul
UPDATE 2: Microsoft has now posted something about the integration too. See below for more details. —Paul
Over a year ago, Microsoft secretly agreed to partner with Amazon to integrate their digital personal assistants. And while it’s unclear what form this integration will take as I write this, we should learn more later today.
News of the partnership arrives via a New York Times report, which notes that users will be able to summon Cortana using Alexa, and vice versa, “by the end of the year.”
According to the publication, the integration is coming about because Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos realized that Cortana offered unique features related to Microsoft Outlook and Office that Amazon’s Alexa asked. So he reached out to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in May 2016. Nadella, unsurprisingly, was receptive.
“The personality and expertise of each [assistant] will be such that if they interoperated, the user will get more out of it,” Mr. Nadella told The New York Times. “That resonated for me and for [Mr. Bezos], and then that’s what led to the teams working.”
Neither company has reached out to Google and Apple, the other two major firms working on digital personal assistants and smart speakers. The New York Times speculates that each would reject a similar partnership, but Apple, in particular, could use the help. But Nadella is hopeful.
“I’d welcome it,” he said. “Hopefully, [Apple and Google] will be inspired by [our partnership with Amazon]. At least that would be my hope.”
Initially, the Cortana/Alexa integration will be “awkward,” The New York Times says. A user working with an Alexa device will have to say “Alexa, open Cortana” and then issue a new command for Microsoft’s assistant. Likewise, that rare person using Cortana will have to say “Cortana, open Alexa.”
And that, fundamentally, is the issue. No, not the awkwardness. I’m sure that will be addressed over time. No, Cortana’s almost non-existent position in the market.
As you must know, Amazon holds a commanding lead in the digital personal assistant market, with over 70 percent usage share. Apple will always have some position as well, if only because of the dedication of its fans. And Google is racing forward with Google Assistant, which should seize some major piece of this pie simply through the search giant’s expertise and acumen.
But Microsoft? Cortana first launched on the failed Windows phone platform, so it’s like it never happened. And because it’s relegated to Windows 10 on PCs today, Cortana is basically a non-starter. Less than one-third of Windows 10 users even bother to use the technology.
So the issue for Microsoft is that Cortana just becomes one of many, many skills on Alexa. Whereas Cortana becomes just another way to use Alexa. In other words, while the news of this partnership is fascinating and unexpected, it may not actually change the dynamics of this market, which today revolve around three major players, none named Microsoft. (And, I’ve deliberately left Samsung out of this conversation, but it has its own assistant, named Bixby.)
And Bezos hints at this future in The New York Times piece. He predicts that the primary assistant on a device will be smart enough to automatically route a person’s request to whichever assistant is best equipped to answer, without needing a verbal introduction between the two.
“In my view of the world, because that would be best for the customer, that’s probably what eventually happens,” he says.
Update: Quotes from Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella
“Ensuring Cortana is available for our customers everywhere and across any device is a key priority for us,” said Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft. “Bringing Cortana’s knowledge, Office 365 integration, commitments, and reminders to Alexa is a great step toward that goal.”
“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,” said Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO, Amazon. “It’s great for Echo owners to get easy access to Cortana.”
Update: Microsoft adds more schedule details
The Microsoft post notes that “this collaboration will allow you to access Alexa via Cortana on Windows 10 PCs later this year, followed by Android and iOS in the future.” It also notes that you will be able to access Cortana on Alexa-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Show. But doesn’t explain the timeline for that.
“Cortana users will be able to have Alexa shop on Amazon.com and manage their Amazon orders and access many of Alexa’s third-party skills by asking Cortana to open Alexa, just as Alexa users will have access to Cortana’s world knowledge and helpful productivity features such as calendar management, day at a glance and location-based reminders simply by asking Alexa to open Cortana,” Microsoft corporate vice president Andrew Shuman adds.