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Amazon and Microsoft form united front in AI assistants, but mobile is a huge gap

Two of the big four voice-based, AI-augmented digital assistants have confirmed a tie-up this week, with Microsoft and Amazon announcing that they will integrate Cortana and Alexa.

The goal of these strange bedfellows is to provide better access to each platform’s unique features, and looks like an attempt to bridge the gap from the home (Alexa) and the workplace (Cortana). However, that still leaves a gaping void for both, in the shape of the mobile device where Apple Siri and Google Now hold sway, thanks to those companies’ dominance of the smartphone user experience. By contrast, Amazon and Microsoft have both failed in their attempt to create well-used mobile platforms, and are likely to need further partnerships to fill that essential gap, as well as penetrate the connected car.

Microsoft has a presence in the vast majority of enterprises, which use its Office suite and Outlook email platform in their everyday operations –  although Google and its software suite are doing their best to scratch out some market share from Office. With the Alexa integration, Microsoft would be able to open up all of the rich data from that professional environment, and make it available to Alexa – for the benefit of the worker while they are at home.

In such a scenario, and with the appropriate permissions granted, a user could ask an Amazon Echo device in their home to ‘open Cortana,’ at which point they would be able to query calendar schedules or set reminders and tasks – hosted on their employer’s Exchange system.

Similarly, the Microsoft system should be able to push alerts to those Alexa users. This will be useful for those that use Alexa as a way to check schedules in the morning, or plan their days over breakfast. In reverse, the system would let a user at an office PC interact with their Amazon ecosystem, adding things to shopping lists or controlling smart home devices.

It’s something of an extension of the BYOD (bring your own device) philosophy that has revolutionized the business world, with the Echo just an evolution of the PDA, smartphone, or laptop – another way for a worker to access their office environment remotely. With some 500m Windows 10 PCs out in the wild, which have Cortana baked into the OS be default, Alexa could significantly boost the number of outlets it is available on.

Cortana might also be able to boost its footprint, but it isn’t clear how many Echoes have been sold and deployed – Amazon says it has sold millions, and eMarketer says that accounts for around 70% of the market for these smart speakers. Also of note is a recent admission from Microsoft that it has 145m monthly users of Cortana.

What is also not clear is the amount of data sharing that is going on between the two giants. Whether this means that the pair will now be able to identify and match a user’s Amazon account with their work accounts hasn’t been mentioned, and if that is the case, that’s a pretty big win for both parties – as it lets them both do a lot more with their marketing data.

Amazon would hope to sell more things on the back of this data, and Microsoft might find ways to pitch it to those Office buyers, as part of a business analytics offering. The pair might also be able to share the usage telematics data, to improve the performance of both systems – better understanding and acting on commands and requests. But to reiterate, neither party is disclosing whether they hear anything after the user says ‘Alexa, open Cortana,’ or vice versa.

In addition, the system allows Microsoft to tap into Alexa’s large lead of third-party integrations – something Amazon has built up through a deliberate strategy of being as open as possible. Amazon also doesn’t have much to fear from Cortana cannibalizing sales of its Echo range, as Microsoft only (currently) has Harman Kardon to bring Cortana to market (now confirmed), although it is exploring thermostats with Johnson Controls and the GLAS, too.

“The world is big and so multifaceted. 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,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO. “It’s great for Echo owners to get easy access to Cortana.”

“Ensuring Cortana is available for our customers everywhere and across any device is a key priority for us,” said Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO. “Bringing Cortana’s knowledge, Office 365 integration, commitments, and reminders to Alexa is a great step toward that goal.”

The partnership was apparently kicked off in May 2016, according to the New York Times, which said that CEOs Bezos and Nadella agreed to the idea at Microsoft’s CEO Summit. Speaking to the New York Times, Amazon’s Bezos said he had not reached out to Apple or Google to broker a similar agreement, but said he would welcome their involvement, and that hopefully they will be inspired by the Microsoft collaboration.

While Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant have obvious smartphone platform allegiances, Alexa and Cortana will be hoping to take root in as many devices that will have them. Although Amazon’s smartphone apps do house Alexa, it seems very unlikely that it would be able to dethrone the stock Google or Apple assistant as the primary voice interaction medium on a smartphone.

However, Microsoft and Amazon will be looking to broker deals with Google and Apple that allow the phone’s assistant to instruct and query Alexa or Cortana – so that a user could ask Siri to add things to a shopping list, or query Assistant to check their work calendar.

But such deals will be tense when it comes to smart home platforms. Apple won’t want its users avoiding its HomeKit system to interact with a home powered by Alexa, nor will Google. They both want to be the primary interface, to ensure better stickiness among users – but those users won’t be especially happy if they find out that certain voice interactions work fine, but others are blocked for apparently arbitrary reasons.

There may be even greater tensions in extending the digital assistant – and the broader changes to web interactions which it heralds – to the mobile environment. Amazon originally created Alexa for its failed Fire phone, but then reused it in the more successful Echo. It has a few smartphone partners for Alexa, notably Huawei, but is clearly excluded from other majors such as Samsung, which has its own Bixby, Apple and Google.

Its best shot at mobile success is to offer a superior experience which users will choose even over a default, pre-installed assistant. It supports an agent-first approach rather than an apps-driven one, which can make it more flexible to be implemented in connected devices which do not have a screen, and use only the voice interface. However, it does need a stronger browser option for larger devices and of course, it will have to access Google services like Gmail, YouTube and the search engine – though signing up for Google’s terms and conditions could reduce the differentiation and restrict Amazon’s ability to create a new-style user interface.

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