Microsoft and Amazon announced a year ago that their respective voice assistants would work with one another. Now, the companies are releasing a preview that allows users of one to command the other.
Users can ask each assistant to access the other one, á la “Alexa, open Cortana” on Echo devices, and vice versa on devices like Windows 10 computers and the Harman Kardon Invoke speaker. Available via each platform’s skills, the voice technologies can trigger smart home functions, like turning on lights or locking doors, as well as perform platform-specific tasks — like triggering Windows or Office features.
“An Office 365 customer could, for instance, ask Cortana to summon Alexa through a PC at work and use Alexa to order groceries or adjust the thermostat before heading home for the day,” explained Jennifer Langston, a writer in Microsoft’s Stories division. “And someone making breakfast in the kitchen could enlist Cortana through an Echo device to preview a daily calendar, add an item to a to-do list or check for new e-mails before heading to the office.”
The collaboration is taking baby steps right now, but Microsoft believes it’s just the beginning. The companies are taking the preview as an opportunity to learn from user feedback and eventually grow into more features, such as streaming music and alarms. “The goal is to have two integrated digital assistants who can carry out tasks across different dimensions of daily life,” Langston added.
Given the limited set of current functions, shopping makes for a noteworthy inclusion. Reports swirled this week that few people — to the tune of roughly 2 percent of Echo owners — actually buy things using Alexa. And yet, Amazon and rival Google both tout voice shopping as marquee features of their voice assistant tech.
Amazon denied the figure, stating that “millions of customers” shop with Alexa for its ease and convenience. And experts are bullish about voice shopping’s prospects. A March market research report from OC&C Strategy Consultants projected that the market will ramp up in the next couple of years, going from $2 billion today to more than $40 billion in 2022.
For both companies, the move is a crafty way to expand into these and other capabilities without too much fuss. Cortana may stand to benefit more from the deal, thanks to Alexa’s large and growing skill set and user base. Amazon, as the market’s leader in voice-enabled smart speakers, is far ahead of Microsoft, which has yet to extend its talking assistant to more appliances beyond the Invoke, some Cortana-powered thermostats and its Windows 10 computing devices.
Signs now point to the Windows maker amping up its voice ambitions. In addition to partnering with the e-commerce giant, the tech company also rejiggered its Cortana management by putting its Outlook for iPhone chief at the helm.
As for Amazon, it now has a fairly painless way to tap into the Windows 10 user base, which accounts for more than 36 percent of all personal computers. And that extra push could help it widen the gap between it and Google, which holds the number-two spot for voice-enabled speakers.
Now the scene includes yet another major player: Samsung. Its Bixby-powered Galaxy Home joins the ranks, alongside Google Home appliances, Apple’s HomePod, the Invoke and the Amazon Echo family of products. Until now, all of them have tied into independent ecosystems, but as nascent technologies, they still stumble with some fundamentals. It’s still far too easy to trip up voice assistants with basic requests that developers perhaps hadn’t considered.
According to Voicebot.ai, as many as 47.3 million, or nearly 20 percent, of adults in the U.S. have access to a smart speaker in their households. If at least some of them prove to be stronger together, the growth in those numbers could speak volumes.