Posey's Tips & Tricks

Why Would Microsoft and Amazon Integrate Cortana and Alexa?

A rundown (and some guesses) of what the two companies could gain by finally making their rival digital assistants play nice.

Last year, it was announced that Microsoft and Amazon would be linking together Cortana and Alexa, their respective AI-powered and voice-activated digital assistants, before the end of the year.

Ultimately, 2017 came and went with no more news, leaving many to assume that the integration efforts had been abandoned.

At this month's Build conference, however, Microsoft demonstrated the integration, which allows Cortana to access Alexa and vice versa.

I am really looking forward to seeing how this integration plays out. Having Alexa natively accessible through the Windows desktop is sure to be handy. Of course, Alexa users will also have access to Cortana through their Alexa devices.

In the demo, Microsoft spun the integration as being beneficial to customers based on the idea that Cortana and Alexa tend to be used for completely different things. People tend to use Alexa to find information or to control home automation devices, while, according to the video, Cortana tends to be used for managing contacts, work calendars and that sort of thing.

Although the demo did a good job of illustrating the differing strengths of Cortana and Alexa, I can't help but to wonder what is really fueling the integration of the two digital assistants. I have a few ideas of what might really be going on, but these ideas are nothing but speculation. I don't have any inside information from Microsoft or Amazon.

So with that said, consider the integration of Cortana and Alexa from Microsoft's standpoint. As much as it pains me to write this, I'm not sure if anyone actually uses Cortana. I use Cortana all the time on my Windows Phone, but I almost never use it on my desktop PC or on my laptop. More importantly, I can't seem to recall ever having anyone tell me that they use Cortana on Windows 10. I have to assume that there are people who use Cortana on a regular basis, but I haven't met them.

On the other hand, Alexa is way more popular than Cortana (again, it pains me to write that), and it does a much better job of answering general-knowledge questions than Cortana does. Given Alexa's mainstream popularity, Microsoft has everything to gain by exposing Alexa through Cortana.

Now consider the Alexa-Cortana integration from Amazon's point of view. Amazon already has the dominant digital assistant (Alexa). On the surface, it would seem that Amazon has nothing to gain by tying Alexa to Cortana. So why did Amazon agree to the integration?

Two possibilities come to mind. One possibility is that Amazon wants to increase Alexa's dominance. Even though Cortana probably isn't a serious threat to Alexa, Amazon does have to compete with Apple's Siri and with Google Now. Making Alexa available on Windows desktops could allow Amazon to introduce Alexa to people who might not go out and buy an Echo, while also making Alexa far more ubiquitous. After all, there are a lot of Windows desktops out there.

Another possibility is that Amazon is using the Cortana-Alexa integration as a stepping stone. Over the last several years, Amazon has spent a ton of money to become the dominant cloud computing player. What Amazon does not have, however, is its own operating system (Fire tablets don't count).

If Amazon ever did create a desktop operating system, you can bet that Alexa would be an integral feature. Exposing Alexa through Windows would surely give Amazon valuable insight into how a digital assistant might be used on the desktop.

Now, please do not misunderstand me. I'm not accusing Amazon of hatching a nefarious plan to dethrone Windows as the dominant PC operating system. The only thing that I am saying is that exposing Alexa through Cortana and vice versa seems like an odd thing for Amazon to do. I'm sure that there are business drivers behind the decision -- I just have no idea what those drivers are. In any case, I am looking forward to being able to use Alexa through Windows.

Oh, and one more thing: I am going to make a prediction here and now. My guess is that within the next three years, Microsoft is going to create a Windows build that defaults to using Cortana, but gives users the ability to configure Windows to use Alexa as the default digital assistant.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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