There has been an explosion in voice assistants — including Apple Siri, Samsung Bixby, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana — to the point that many of us are already using two or more. So wouldn’t it be great if these assistants could work together and talk with one another?
Microsoft and Amazon are testing the possibilities with the integration of Cortana and Alexa, a partnership inspired by a conversation between Satya Nadella and Jeff Bezos. We got our first public glimpse of how it could work on stage Monday morning at the Microsoft Build developer conference in Seattle.
It’s fascinating to see the Seattle region’s two tech titans working together, and for users of multiple voice assistants, it’s encouraging that they’re giving it a try.
However, the demo mostly showed that this budding relationship between Alexa and Cortana needs some work.
As demonstrated on stage, the process of communicating with Alexa via Cortana, and vice versa, was cumbersome and slow, in a world that is increasingly becoming seamless and quick.
To the companies, given their respective focuses, it might make sense to rely on Cortana for a work calendar, and Alexa for managing shopping list. However, as noted by journalist Stacey Higginbotham, the blurring of work and personal lives makes this “seems like a confusing and arbitrary divide.”
The process itself also seemed too convoluted — asking Alexa to “open Cortana,” for example, then waiting a beat before then asking Cortana a question. Yes, this notion of invoking a separate service is the current norm with third-party skills, but the standard for integration should be higher when the two companies responsible for the underlying platforms are involved.
Microsoft and Amazon are clearly aware that what they’ve come up with so far isn’t optimal. The companies believe “there will be many successful intelligent agents, working together to provide customers a more helpful experience,” said Amazon’s Tom Taylor before the first public demonstration. But he quickly acknowledged that it is still “early days.”
“This is the first step in a longer journey as intelligent friends in both the real and ambient world,” said Microsoft’s Megan Saunders.
Here’s hoping the friendship grows stronger over time. The Alexa-Cortana integration is in a private beta, but you can sign up for updates on this Microsoft page.
In the meantime, Alexa is being pre-installed directly on some Windows PCs.