Alexa and Cortana - Does this really help?
In a new Microsoft blog post today Andrew Schuman, VP of Cortana Development, talks about the new collaboration between Amazon and Microsoft voice assistants. The arrangement appears to be a win-win by giving each company access to more platforms and functions that they currently don't offer themselves. Amazon gets integration into Windows 10, iPhone and Android through the Cortana app, getting their shopping experience onto more platforms and giving Microsoft users access to that experience more directly. Meanwhile, Microsoft gets to push it's Cortana organisational functionality out through Amazon's increasingly prolific smart speaker devices, providing a value add for Amazon's windows customers...at least those who use Cortana anyway.
As Andrew describes the collaboration though, it seems a little clunky. Effectively you'll just be using each native voice assistant to open the other assistant 'app' for a one time voice command, basically a 'skill' addition on each platform. This creates a two-step process to ask one voice assistant to ask another one to do something. And you'll have to be cognisant of which one you need to do what. That seems obvious perhaps, but for the lay person who might be in the middle of doing other stuff it's bound to get people tripped up and frustrated.
The proffered example of the wife asking the husband to order stuff from Amazon while at work? If the family was in the habit of shopping for mundane every day items from Amazon anyway, why wouldn't the wife just do it? OK, I'm being pedantic, but it makes it seem like the actual use cases are thin on the ground right now.
According to Microsoft, as of the Build conference in May this year, Cortana has 141 million monthly active users. That figure is a little iffy though, as it includes all usage of the Cortana search box. While voice queries aren't called out, the value to Amazon of this collaboration is going to be just that. If you aren't using the voice interface you aren't going to be calling up Alexa on your PC, and if you aren't using Microsoft's integrated services (calendar, reminders, contact and such) you aren't going to have any reason to call up Cortana on an Echo device. It's impossible to say what percentage of the 141 million are gong to benefit here, but I'd wager a significant chunk are just going to be random web searches or unit conversions
The value to Amazon is fairly clear, with somewhere over 3 million Echo units sold even a fraction of Cortana users taking up Alexa for ordering products is a win. Microsoft is likely hoping to drive uptake of Cortana usage by making it more available, but more so by offering the addition of Amazon shopping services. Surfacing that capability will be up to Microsoft as most Windows users are unlikely to know it's there, and we'll have to see how they make that happen.
Smart home devices and services playing nice together is a welcome occurrence when it happens. Reducing vendor lock in is always good for consumers, even if the implementation leaves something to be desired. Driving that lock-in is all too tempting for platform providers, so as skeptical as I am in this case, I applaud the effort by both sides. Time will tell if it pays off for either of them.