Last week, Microsoft and Amazon announced they would allow Cortana and Alexa, their respective digital assistants, to interoperate.
At least at first glance, the partnership is a peculiar one. Major tech firms often keep their core products walled off from competitors; you can’t download Android apps onto your iPhone, for instance, or play Xbox games on your PlayStation. But Microsoft and Amazon executives evidently believed their respective digital assistants would benefit from interoperability.
And once the two platforms become interoperable later this year, the functionality will run deep. Cortana users will have access to Alexa’s entire portfolio of skills (over 20,000 at last count, thanks to a growing army of third-party developers). Via Cortana, Alexa users will open all manner of Microsoft tools, from work email to calendars.
“The world is big and so multifaceted,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in a statement accompanying the announcement. “There are going to be multiple successful intelligent agents, each with access to different sets of data and with different specialized skill areas. Together, their strengths will complement each other and provide customers with a richer and even more helpful experience.”
Microsoft and Amazon share another thing in common when it comes to digital assistants: a lack of mobile penetration. The two companies’ biggest rivals in the artificial-intelligence space, Apple and Google, offer their respective digital assistants (Siri and Google Assistant) on smartphones and tablets. Although Alexa and Cortana are both available for Apple’s iOS and Google Android, those assistants don’t come baked into those operating systems—curtailing adoption.
In addition, iOS and Android give Apple and Google an incredible amount of data about how people interact with the world, which in turn can feed their respective artificial-intelligence platforms. Had Windows Phone survived and prospered as a mobile platform, it might have given Microsoft a similar kind of data advantage—but without all that delicious smartphone data, Cortana is potentially hobbled.
Amazon’s smartphone efforts met a faster and much more inglorious death: the Fire Phone, introduced with much fanfare in July 2014, sold so few units that Amazon took a $170 million write-down—and never launched a successor device. Pundits and analysts blamed the phone’s high price and a crowded marketplace. Amazon’s Alexa dominates the living room, and provides the company with lots of data about people in a home context—but that dominance stops at the front door.
By combining forces, Microsoft and Amazon might hope that they can generate larger audiences and overcome their respective platforms’ core weaknesses. As the market for digital assistants heats up, though, can they overcome the lack of a smartphone OS to help feed their A.I. algorithms?