In an unlikely union of voice assistants, Amazon and Microsoft have married up Alexa and Cortana. The partnership helps each company fill in important gaps in their “tech you can yell at” offerings, just as Apple and Google encroach on the Alexa-powered Echo’s home-speaker domain. But whatever comfort Alexa and Cortana find in each other’s code won’t mean much unless they can solve their biggest problem: the smartphone.
Alexa and Cortana can do more together than they can on their own. And they’ll both need all the help they can get against the increasingly ambitious competition. But the partnership’s limits—and it has quite a few—mostly underscore the urgency for both Amazon and Microsoft to sneak their smart assistants into mobile. Without that, they can only get so far; holding someone’s hand doesn’t help you ice skate uphill any faster.
A Full Complement
On paper, at least, the partnership makes sense. Amazon and Microsoft have different strengths, and their voice assistants reflect that.
“It does fill in some gaps for both companies that are important for both of them,” says James McQuivey, principal analyst at Forrester Research. No one beats Amazon at retail; Microsoft has no shopping component, and no real hope of forging one on its own. And Microsoft brings the kind of deep familiarity with your day, thanks to its Office 365 suite of products, that Amazon can only dream of.
“There are going to be multiple successful intelligent agents, each with access to different sets of data and with different specialized skill areas,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a press statement announcing the team-up. “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.”
Sounds good so far. But using Alexa with Cortana and vice versa requires a fairly liberal definition of “easy,” at least for now. To access Cortana via Alexa, you need to say “Alexa, open Cortana,” followed by your command. The process works the same in reverse. The joy of a voice assistant comes from its seamlessness; becoming bilingual introduces a significant seam.
Eventually, as Bezos tells The New York Times, Alexa and Cortana products will be able to automatically direct each request to whichever assistant makes the most sense. In theory, that sounds great. In practice, it could prove thorny.
“For one thing, the companies would have to agree on which domains are best handled by their assistants. For now, that’s fine because they’re largely complementary rather than competitive,” says Jan Dawson, founder of Jackdaw research, a consulting firm focused on consumer technology. But that makes the unlikely assumption of stagnant feature sets. As Alexa and Cortana continue to evolve—the latter’s already making a push into the living room—divvying up responsibilities becomes less obvious.
“Who wins then? Does it depend on whose device you’re using?” asks Dawson.
All questions for another day. Besides, there’s a bigger challenge for Cortalexa to overcome than the device you’re using to talk to them. It’s the one you’re not.
Phone It In
Alexa and Cortana live in millions of devices—smart speakers, peripherals, PCs—and they have terrific insight into how you spend very specific portions of your day. But they lack what Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri have: a mobile ecosystem that knows where you are and what you need, every single minute. That’s a significant handicap, one that this partnership doesn’t help overcome.
“Neither of them gets any significant boost on mobile, by far the largest voice-assistant category out there, and where they’re both virtually nonexistent today,” says Dawson.
Both Microsoft and Amazon have tried to make inroads, with varying degrees of success. The Cortana app has between 1 and 5 million downloads in the Google Play store. That’s a decent number, but can’t compete with how many iPhones have Siri, and how many Android devices have Google Assistant baked in. Amazon has gotten somewhat further, sneaking Alexa onto iOS through its hugely popular retail app. It even recently achieved first-class status on an HTC flagship.
Still, it’s not enough.
“There’s a lot of interesting pieces to this, but none of them solves that mobile problem,” McQuivey says. Microsoft declined an interview request, while Amazon did not respond to an inquiry.
By putting Alexa in a home speaker, Amazon carved out a significant voice-assistant lead. But by not having a broader ecosystem to tap into—unless you count your online purchases as an ecosystem—it has a major blind spot to where you eat, work, exercise, and more. Ditto Cortana, which lives mostly in PCs and can’t offer as many proactive services as Google Assistant or Siri can and will.
It works the other way, too. Amazon’s home supremacy hasn’t yet met a serious challenger, but that’s changing fast. Apple will ship its Siri-powered HomePod soon, a gorgeous—if expensive—smart speaker. Google just announced a trio of Google Assistant-powered speakers and appliances, with a flotilla more on the way. And in early October, audio darling Sonos is expected to announce a speaker that speaks multiple voice-assistant languages. A long-empty field suddenly looks a lot more crowded.
“As both Apple and Google make inroads into the home speaker space over the next few months, they’re in a really strong position to offer ubiquitous assistants that are with you everywhere you go,” says Dawson. For now, most people leave Echo and Cortana at the door. That’ll still be true when the two assistants work in tandem.
Giant tech companies working together, rather than falling back on the same walled gardens that hamstrung smartphones for so long, should be celebrated. (Yay, Alexatana!) So should more consumer choice. (Huzzah, Cortalexa!) But while Amazon and Microsoft have filled in some gaps in each other’s coverage, they’re both still left with a gaping abyss. Until they find a way to lead on smartphones—like, say, making their own again—that won’t change.