Hey, Cortana: What do you think of Alexa for Business?

How does Amazon's new Alexa for Business service fit with the recent Microsoft-Amazon partnership around voice assistants?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

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On Nov. 30, Amazon announced that Alexa is heading straight into Microsoft's productivity wheelhouse, with the new Alexa for Business service.

A quick look at the already-available Alexa for Business skills -- dialing into conference calls, controlling conference room settings, provisioning and managing individual and shared Echo devices -- makes it clear that Amazon isn't content to keep Alexa primarily inside the home/consumer space.

If you're Microsoft, you have to be worried. I can't help but wonder about how much of the Alexa for Business plan Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was privy when he signed that Alexa-Cortana partnership deal this summer.

In August, this was Amazon's positioning of why it partnered with Microsoft for Cortana:

"Alexa customers will be able to access Cortana's unique features like booking a meeting or accessing work calendars, reminding you to pick up flowers on your way home, or reading your work email - all using just your voice. Similarly, Cortana customers can ask Alexa to control their smart home devices, shop on Amazon.com, interact with many of the more than 20,000 skills built by third-party developers, and much more."

After today's announcement, I'm not sure why anyone using Alexa would need or want to ask Cortana to book a meeting or check a work calendar. As Amazon announced, Alexa for Business will integrate with Office 365 and support on-premises Exchange -- just like Cortana.

It's no secret Microsoft is lagging far behind Alexa with its Cortana developer story. It's also no secret that Microsoft has plans to try to integrate Cortana more deeply into the conference room, as it hinted in a "Microsoft Future" podcast earlier this year.

In an episode of that podcast, Microsoft officials describe a conference room where Cortana greets meeting participants, assists them in joining a scheduled meeting, transcribe meeting notes, recommend documents, and reminding people of the names and titles of meeting participants.

Microsoft seems to be moving away from its original direction with Cortana (making it a friendlier front end for Bing) and toward making it a true digital personal assistant that is deeply integrated into apps that users already have, like Office, Skype and Teams. But Amazon seems to be moving this way, too.

I've asked Microsoft officials for their take on Alexa for Business. No word back yet.

Update (December 1): Unsurprisingly, Microsoft officials won't talk about what Alexa for Business means for the Microsoft-Amazon partnership around voice assistants. The only statement a spokesperson would provide:

"Microsoft 365 is the gold standard for AI-powered productivity, with Cortana and Cognitive Services built-in. As a direct result, tens of millions of people use Microsoft AI at work every day."

If Microsoft is planning on making the "modern office" the place where Cortana shines brightest, it better hurry. Amazon and Google aren't going to wait.

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