Cortana and Alexa, sitting in a tree. Can you both collectively check the weather for me?
Microsoft and Amazon both have competing virtual assistants, so it was a shock when the companies announced a partnership to allow them to communicate with one another. Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana will be able to summon each other at will before the end of the year.
Each of the biggest tech companies have some version of a virtual assistant, from Apple’s Siri to the Google Assistant. This is why it is odd to see two of the biggest companies in the world work together on a project in a space that at one point they seemed like competitors in.
The devices are useful for a lot of things, from playing music to ordering pizza. Virtual assistants were created to help users interact seamlessly with their parent companies’ other services as well, such as using Alexa to order something from the Amazon store or using Cortana on your Windows PC. This technology has seen huge amounts of money poured into it as the scene grows increasingly competitive and saturated.
However, the respective CEOs of Amazon and Microsoft, Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella, evidently expressed doubts around this growing market. They seem to think that virtual assistants need to work together and not exist in a silo, as each company’s product has unique strengths to offer.
In an interview with the New York Times, Bezos likened the future of interaction with virtual AI to having a close friend to ask for recommendations.
“I want them to have access to as many of those A.I.s as possible,” Bezos told the NY Times.
The partnership to make Alexa and Cortana virtual buddies began over a year ago and has been happening in relative secrecy. Bezos met Nadella at the Microsoft CEO Summit in May 2016 and chatted about the possibility of combining the two assistants. The two did not reach out to Google or Apple but have said they would welcome collaboration.
Nadella also spoke to the the NY Times and offered a comparison to competing web browsers like Chrome and Firefox to liken the joining of Alexa and Cortana.
“The personality and expertise of each one will be such that if they interoperated, the user will get more out of it,” Nadella said. “That resonated for me and for him, and then that’s what led to the teams working.”
Cortana has over 145 million monthly active users through Windows 10, while the Amazon Echo (the main way users communicate with Alexa) controls around 70 per cent of the smart speaker market.