The Alexa-Cortana integration: Why wasn't this bigger news?

The long awaited integration between Alexa and Cortana came last week. And while many don't view Cortana as a major player in the voice assistant space, the potential is definitely there, even it it didn't fully materialize with the news.
Written by Brent Leary, Contributor

A couple of things I need to say off the top here: OK, the headline sounds negative, but for me, it's more about how potentially positive/powerful the news could've been in comparison to what it ended up being. But it still can be that level of positive/powerful in the end, because this should not be the end.

Also: Microsoft and Amazon start publicly testing Cortana-Alexa integration

It took a year to get to this point, but at least we got here. I don't think we'll get "here" with Alexa/Google Assistant or Alexa/Siri anytime soon, which is a real shame, because the more these four assistants/companies work together on creating a common platform layer, the quicker/more secure/more scalable adoption of voice assistants will be in the enterprise.

So, really, I'm encouraged to actually see the first steps of voice assistant détente taking place. But, with that said, it feels like we should be so much further down the line with this.

The needle moved... a bit

Cortana really needs to create and scale up interest, and then convert that into adoption. And integrating with Alexa spawned a bunch of articles and lifting Cortana's profile. But the interest ginned up last week may be short-lived if the pace of Cortana's internal integration within the Microsoft Dynamics business apps community doesn't quicken. Because I think that is where Cortana could really shine and carve out a great niche for itself in the enterprise. Now that might not sound sexy and get everybody talking, but with all the billions of dollars being spent on enterprise business applications today, it could definitely pay off.

Also: How to use Alexa and Cortana together CNET

As for the current state of the integration, it was easy to set up Cortana's Alexa skill and start using it to ask what's on my Outlook calendar, whether I have new emails, and add things to my to-do list. I also did the few easy steps to connect Cortana to Alexa so that I could speak to my Microsoft Surface Studio machine and have Alexa set my thermostat and turn on a light in my office. I even took it to the next level and added a task to a to-do list and sent an email from Outlook while driving, since I can access Alexa on the road with my Roav Viva device.

While all that was easy to setup, easy to use, and kind of cool (although a bit clunky) to have the two assistants working together, it's very limited in what they can do through each other currently, which to me limits the trajectory and duration of the attention of last week's announcement. And for Cortana, that's really not good news, because it needs an adrenaline shot to get and keep any excitement it can muster right now.

It's all there for Cortana to be a major player in bringing voice to the enterprise

It's no secret that from a mindshare perspective, Cortana stood to gain the most to gain from last week. Sure, Amazon and Alexa having a presence on more devices helps, and according to a number of reports, there are roughly 145 million active Cortana users, with the bulk of those using the service on Windows 10 desktop machines. But it's Cortana who needs the juice here, as Amazon's "echosystem" around Alexa is way more developed, with third-party developers and manufacturers cranking out skills (45,000-plus) and devices. And it feels like fighting to get the attention of the consumer world will be an extremely uphill battle, especially with Google, Apple, Samsung, and others fighting with Amazon for smart home market share and mindshare.

While it would be great to be "king of the smart home," I don't think Microsoft needs to be in order for Cortana to be successful because of their potential in being a (or even "the") leader in the enterprise for voice assistants. Microsoft has productivity apps with Office 365, enterprise apps with Dynamics 365, a developer platform for coders and non-coders alike (with Azure, Power BI, PowerApps), and tons of data from all this (including LinkedIn). It also has a huge traditional developer network. And, on top of all that, it has a set of really nice devices like the Surface line of tablets/laptops/desktops, as well as one of the consumer powerhouses in the Xbox.

Also: How to use the new Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana integration TechRepublic

From an enterprise perspective, Xbox aside, I can't think of any other technology company that has the array of assets that Microsoft has, and to me, last week's announcement could have been more like LeBron signing with the Lakers: A story line that came with a bang and continues to drive the attention of the whole NBA universe. Because it's already feeling like last week's announcement is yesterday's news... from an excitement/interest perspective.

But what if -- in the year between announcing the Alexa-Cortana integration and it actually going live -- Cortana had been deeply integrated into Office 365, Dynamics 365, available for people to build there PowerApps with (maybe even leverage LinkedIn data somehow)? What could last week have looked like then? Maybe having Alexa ask Cortana which of the deals in my pipeline are expected to close this quarter. Or maybe how many vacation days I have for the rest of the year. Or maybe getting a flash briefing on changes to my important contacts based on CRM and LinkedIn data. Maybe even, since Microsoft and Adobe have deepened their partnership, using Alexa to ask Cortana what the conversion rate is on a certain offer, or how much time prospects are spending on a landing page before leaving. And even though there are thousands of skills in the Alexa marketplace, I haven't seen any that can do those things.

Now all those things may not generate as much publicity as being able to order a pizza with your smart speaker, but I tell you it would generate some publicity with one audience: The enterprise audience. And those folks have big wallets. I'd also render a guess and say that even Alexa would be more excited, because even though it can already check calendars and to-do lists on its own, it definitely doesn't have access to the types of data and insights Microsoft has in all its applications.

Now is the time to bring it all home

While last week's announcement definitely brought some much-needed attention to Cortana, it feels like the attention cycle has already moved on from it. That's not to take away from what was actually done here. As ZDNet's Paul Greenberg said in the embedded video above, seeing two of the most influential companies in the space actually deliver an integration is a very big thing. And, as hard as it seems to imagine, if this leads to eventually seeing the other major players participating in this spirit, maybe we'll see some standards created that will make it easier for developers to create apps that work with the major voice assistants -- standards that include security and privacy.

Now it may be that getting Cortana to work with Alexa is easier for Microsoft to do than it will be to get Cortana fully integrated into a layer that cuts across productivity and business apps and development tools. That is a lot of groups and people and silos to have to collaborate and agree on things. But I think that may be the best opportunity for Cortana to excite, thrill, and keep the attention of people who control a lot of money. And also create some pretty good reasons for millions of business users to ask Cortana for things even Alexa, Siri, or Google can't give them.

Also: How smart are Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant, and Siri?

So, even though it doesn't feel like things moved as far along as they could have in the last year between Cortana-Alexa announcements, that's not to say that it wasn't important. Because I think it was. And although I think it could've been so much more, Cortana has a great deal of promise in bringing some voice-first excitement to an area it's currently lacking in compared to consumer market -- if Microsoft can pull it all together, which I admit is a pretty big if. But if it views it as being important to its success, it'll have all the resources to make it happen. And if it does that, it could make Cortana just as important, in many ways, as its more popular digital rivals.

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