Microsoft, Amazon roll out Alexa-Cortana unification programme

Users of Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistants can now access features of the other’s technology, said the companies in a joint announcement last night.

At present, the partnership is available in the US as a public preview to anyone with an Alexa-powered device, Windows 10 PC, or Samsung Harman Kardon Invoke speaker.

The news comes almost a year after the tech giants revealed that they were joining forces on the scheme.

Workplace meets marketplace

The partnership is designed to bring together the distinct abilities and deployment scenarios of Alexa and Cortana, with functionality that can be accessed from either assistant.

Combining Amazon’s retail-focused system with Microsoft’s enterprise cloud applications strength means that Cortana users can now order products off Amazon or manage existing orders using voice instructions, according to the announcement.

Meanwhile, someone with an Echo, Dot, or other Alexa-powered device can set up new calendar events and respond to emails with Cortana’s help, said the companies.

Amazon is putting Alexa at the core of a range of consumer devices, from smart TVs and set-top boxes to a rumoured range of domestic robots.

Joining battle

The unusual partnership is being positioned as a means to combat the growing power of Google in AI and digital assistant technology, especially since it has been developing a greater enterprise focus, according to recent announcements.

Natural-language/conversational AI is one part of Google’s portfolio, and the search giant competes with both Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure for dominance of the enterprise cloud platform/services space.

Internet of Business says

The balance of power within the Microsoft/Amazon deal is interesting: Alexa already has more than 45,000 skills, many developed by third parties to encourage shoppers to buy certain products or use their services.

Cortana, meanwhile, only has 250; however, it does offer Amazon a deeper route into the enterprise, which has been a major aim for the company this year, via Alexa.

For its part, Microsoft can now claim a presence in Amazon’s densely populated retail and skills universe – and no doubt, an increase in traffic as a result.

So either side can claim a win in the other’s territory, suggesting that Google – and to a lesser extent Apple’s Siri – must be seen as a real strategic threat within both Amazon and Microsoft.

Siri predated Alexa, Cortana, and Google’s Assistant, but Apple failed to pursue the technology cohesively enough, despite its first-mover advantage.

However, while the new partnership can be seen as both sides taking a healthy dose of realpolitik, the tie-up remains puzzling in some respects, particularly from Microsoft’s point of view.

For one thing, Microsoft has forged recent partnerships – with Walmart, for example – against Amazon, whose booming, multifaceted business is encroaching on many others’ territories. What Walmart makes of the deal is anyone’s guess.

Amazon’s latest results revealed that AWS is the real prize within what is otherwise largely a diversified, commodity-focused business.

For both Amazon and Microsoft, the cloud, along with AI and the Internet of Things, is core to their strategy, and with Google announcing a tighter corporate cloud-services focus to complement its vast advertising business, it seems that Amazon and Microsoft are seizing the opportunity to back Google and its Assistant into a corner.

But ultimately, something else may be behind the move. For the average consumer or business, having a multitude of different digital/voice-activated assistants in the home, office, or on the move, would be inefficient, confusing, and frustrating.

Inevitably, most users within connected/smart homes, offices, cars, and personal area networks will eventually want one assistant to manage all aspects of their lives – probably one that is tuned to their personal needs, networks, and preferences.

Being able to mix and match – and perhaps even design or customise – a personal assistant of their own from a range of tasks and capabilities is the logical outcome of the market.

Being able to port that assistant into a robot, home hub, smart environment, or elsewhere is a future envisaged by a number of recent science fiction films, such as Her and Blade Runner 2049. Inevitably, such films are as much about reading the runes of the technology market today as they are about spinning dystopian fantasies.

In the long run, it seems likely that our digital assistants of choice will end up being more about us as customers, and not them as separate technology suppliers.

See this partnership as step one on the journey towards greater unification.

Compare and contrast Amazon’s, Microsoft’s, and Google/Alphabet’s strategies from their latest quarterly results, along with Apple’s and IBM’s:-

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