Last month, at Microsoft’s annual Build Developer Conference, the company showed off what happens when two voice assistants—its own Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa—talk to one another.
Cortana exec Megan Saunders asked Alexa, via an Amazon Echo, to order milk, and then had Alexa “wake” Cortana to view her schedule and send an email. Following this display of artificial intelligence foreplay, Alexa’s svp, Tom Taylor, using a Windows-based computer, asked Cortana to nudge Alexa to hail an Uber.
We live in magical times.
This week, though, we find out what happens when both voice assistants occupy the same computer. On Tuesday, it was announced that devices from Wistron, Compal and Quanta, which all have Microsoft’s Cortana via Windows 10, are now getting Alexa, too. They join models from HP, Lenovo, Asus and Acer.
Having each assistant talk to one another from separate devices is one thing. Having them both live under the same roof is something entirely different.
Microsoft says it is “very committed to [its] ongoing goal to make Cortana your personal intelligent digital assistant.” Sure, but why, then, invite a rival into consumers’ lives?
It’s easy to see the appeal for Amazon, which gains access to new devices and, as it wrote in a January post, helps bring “even greater choice [to] customers.” (Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.)
A rep for Lenovo echoed, “We think customer choice is important and we’re excited that customers will be able to interact with multiple AIs from a single device.”
The rep added that the assistants are complementary as “Alexa isn’t a search engine that gives you a list of choices on a screen, but rather has tens of thousands of skills that lets users do things like order food, check flights, etc. based on voice alone,” so the interaction may be different from what consumers do with Cortana.
Many experts see Alexa and Cortana being BFFs as a good thing. And they keep talking about “choice,” which is a curious word to conjure up when discussing artificial intelligence.
Mike Nash, chief technologist and global head of customer experience and portfolio strategy in HP’s personal systems unit, said consumers can have both assistants running at the same time; it’s not an either/or.
“I think it is all about choice, but I also think that we kind of want to see where it goes,” Nash added. “It may be customers use one for one set of functions, but I think in general, it is such a new market, it’s too early for us to call.”
Werner Goertz, research director within Gartner’s personal technologies team, also tapped into “choice,” saying the partnership between Microsoft and Amazon is, at some level, about choice.
“This is about Cortana realizing where their strengths and weaknesses are and Alexa realizing where their strength and weaknesses are,” he added.
Goertz said that Cortana’s strength lies in desktops (read: work) and Alexa’s strength is at home.
“The two have developed, are developing, a symbiotic relationship,” he added. “It’s good news for both. They’re trying to create synergies.”
It’s almost as if Microsoft realized Cortana is better suited for the workplace than domestic duties.
“I guess the idea for the future is, you go to work and you will say things like, ‘Hey, Cortana, pull up the Northwestern regional sales numbers for Q4,” Goertz said. “You have a voice interface that helps you intuitively do tasks that you would do through a browser.”
Alexa, on the other hand, is good at helping consumers shop and knows a lot about consumers and their shopping behaviors. And, Goertz said, consumers will use multiple assistants if they have core competencies that don’t overlap with the other guy “and so if Cortana and Alexa are collaborating and creating synergies, it makes sense.”
And while it may make sense for executives with corner offices to say, “Hey Cortana,” to schedule reminders or pull up Word, it seems less logical for worker bees in open office settings, where “Hey Cortana” might set off multiple computers, much like consumers with Amazon Echos and Google Homes can trigger multiple speakers by saying the magic words.
What’s more, research from Forrester shows just under 50 percent of U.S. consumers are using a digital assistant and, of those consumers, over half use just one. 11 percent of U.S. online adults use two digital assistants and 10 percent use three or more.
According to Goertz, so far, no single assistant has “proliferated every aspect of the consumer relationship so it can be the be-all, end-all of voice assistants.”
And yet these assistants will never likely merge into a single all-knowing super assistant because the data these platforms have amassed on consumer behavior is a corporate asset with immense value, Goertz said. (However, it was reported this week that Alexa and Google Home are coming to Microsoft’s XBox One.)
“Cortana is stuck on the Windows 10 platform. Microsoft has tried over the years to get into mobile devices and to get into the consumers’ home with other device categories—remember the Nokia acquisition and Microsoft’s futile attempt to create wearables? Its attempt to go into headsets is still years away with HoloLens,” Goertz said. “Cortana is stuck on the Windows 10 platform and since Windows 10 never proliferated and is dead on mobile devices, by collaborating with Alexa, Cortana has a lot to gain as well.”