One of the most annoying things about digital voice assistants is that they don’t work across platforms. You may use a Microsoft computer at work, an iPhone when you’re mobile, and an Amazon Echo at home, but the assistants that come with each device don’t talk to each other, so they aren’t able to help you seamlessly throughout your day. That’s about to change.
Amazon and Microsoft have announced that their assistants Alexa and Cortana will soon be able to communicate. This means that users with a Microsoft computer will be able to say, “Cortana, open Alexa,” and then ask Alexa to do things like shop on Amazon.com or use any of the 20,000 or more skills built specifically for Alexa by third-party developers. On the flip side, Echo owners will be able to ask Alexa to open Cortana and then access some of Cortana’s features that coordinate with Microsoft Office–like booking meetings and reading a work email address. The idea is to help break down barriers between the two ecosystems, allowing users to access more information even if it’s on different platforms.
The integration is expected to roll out by the end of 2017, according to the New York Times, and it probably won’t be terribly smooth at first. But Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says that in the future, he envisions that users will make a request and whichever AI is better equipped will answer it.
Set aside, for a moment, the irresistible Darwinian dynamic that would create between tech superpowers–a kind of Lord of the Flies for AI. This would represent a major paradigm shift. In the past, the big tech companies have been laser-focused on building their own digital platforms. Why collaborate with competitors and make it easier for users to integrate multiple platforms when each company is invested in keeping users on its own platform?
Amazon is a unique case. The company has been advocating for interoperability between digital assistants for months, pointing out that allowing assistants to talk to each other is fundamentally better for the user.
Which sounds all warm and fuzzy. But it’s worth noting that Amazon is the only one of the major platforms that doesn’t have its own operating system–so it has more to gain from giving users access to the services it doesn’t currently provide compared with, say, Apple or Google. It’s also easy to see why Microsoft would want to collaborate. Neither Microsoft nor Amazon has a robust mobile presence (unlike Google and Apple). Increasing user loyalty in the office and in the home would likely strengthen their relative positions.
Good for users, or good for the bottom line? In this case, it’s probably both.