Microsoft's Cortana piggybacks on Alexa's success as Google Assistant matures

Microsoft called Cortana the world's most personal digital assistant in 2014. Unique features like person-based reminders and a notebook function patterned after real assistants gave fans high hopes for the assistant.

These features, along with references to her highly advanced counterpart{.nofollow} from the Halo video game franchise, added to fans' anticipation of what Cortana could ultimately become. Ironically, four years later it is Google Assistant that is evolving the human-like qualities associated with the Cortana of video-game lore rather than Microsoft's creation.

During Google's 2018 I/O developer conference, the company introduced Google Duplex, an amazing AI system that enables Assistant to call a business and make appointments for users via natural conversation indistinguishable from human speech. Though controversial, this progression toward becoming a more "human-like" assistant is what many would expect of a digital assistant's evolution.

Conversely, Microsoft's Corporate Vice President for Cortana Javier Soltero said, "we are starting to tell a different story about Cortana."

Cortana as assistive vs. Cortana as assistant

While Soltero asserts that Microsoft is still developing Cortana as an "assistant," Microsoft's new focus is making her "assistive" in helping users complete tasks across platforms. Soltero admitted the digital assistant and ambient computing markets evolved differently than Microsoft expected in a concession to rivals Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.

With a seemingly neglected Cortana-powered Harmon Kardon smart speaker and little progress in making Cortana available or useful in many regions, Microsoft's development of Cortana as a capable digital assistant seemed to have long been forsaken. Within this context, her deeper integration in Windows 10, cross-platform development and integration within Microsoft's products and services (opens in new tab) are consistent with a strategy of making her more "assistive" for personal and professional productivity than a distinct assistant.

Cortana as an "assistive" component of various products places her functionally and mentally in the background rather than at the forefront compared to rival assistants that consumers intentionally call upon to complete tasks. To combat that mindshare and market presence challenge, Microsoft's piggybacking Cortana on Amazon Alexa's consumer success via a strategic partnership.

Alexa and Cortana

Amazon dominates the smart-speaker and ambient-computing markets with its affordable Alexa-powered Echo smart speakers. Google Home Assistant-powered smart speakers are a distant second. Though Cortana's part of 700 million Windows 10 devices, the practicality of Alexa and Assistant for completing tasks, purchasing items and answering questions (due to their broad ecosystems and connected services) are making them household names among consumers with whom Cortana has had comparatively little impact.

Consequently, Microsoft and Amazon partnered to pair Cortana with Alexa on Echo devices and Alexa with Cortana on Windows 10 devices. This deal positions Cortana on the industry's most prolific smart speaker which increases potential consumer engagement. Microsoft's Megan Saunders, general manager of program development, demonstrated how an Echo device in the home could be used to engage Cortana, which she uses to manage her calendar and emails (above video).

Whereas this deal benefits Microsoft in the consumer space, it also benefits Amazon's pursuit of the enterprise. Windows PCs are the most prolific desktop platform for homes and business. Thus, Amazon is piggybacking Alexa on Windows 10 as a portal to the enterprise.

Google Assistant is what Cortana should have been

Microsoft has dedicated decades to machine learning, natural language processing, and AI. As a result, AI is part of Microsoft 365, Microsoft's intelligent cloud and intelligent edge and even enabled Cortana to recognize people as they arrive at a meeting and transcribe meeting notes.

Former Microsoft CEOs paved the way for Nadella's AI and bots

Still, these advancements don't reflect that highly personal digital assistant that Cortana began as on Windows phone. Whereas Cortana's now an "assistive" component of the "system," Google's positioning Assistant, which is part of 500 million devices, as "your personal Google."

Google's AI investments and large platform have yielded years of data from users for natural language understanding, deep learning, and text to speech. This has resulted in "Continued Conversation," where Assistant can engage in back and forth conversation without being reinitiated with the "Hey Google" command. Google WaveNet brings natural and human sounding voices that surpass other text-to-speech systems. And Google Duplex will allow users to tell Assistant to make appointments for them, and Assistant will place the call in the background in a conversational human voice.

Google's Assistant is becoming the world's most personal digital assistant, or what Cortana was supposed to be. Fortunately, Amazon's Alexa and Echo smart speakers are available for Cortana to piggy-back on. And that may just be Microsoft's best remaining chance to make an impact with consumers.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

44 Comments
  • This is what MS have done for years. Let themselves watch until when their competitors take the budding market. And they jump the market when it is too late.
    MS still don't learn lesson from their failures.
  • True... When will MS grab the bull by the balls?
  • Is there any actual news regarding the 'integration' with Alexa, Jason?
  • Ask Cortana with your voice "ask Alexa" or "open Alex" and Cortana will respond with a message. She gives a little longer response with the Invoke.
  • this feature is still "Coming Soon" for everyone else outside of US.
  • Creepy stuff. Will they code Cortana to auto fire people based on searchable gossip that it picks up?
  • "cortana, ask Alexa to fire everyone who is not working on cloud services!" "thanks, Satya"!
  • Agree with Jason. Some of this stuff is creepy. AI in business will be more potentially damaging as than Google's stupid Duplex.
  • I don't see anyone asking Cortana on an Amazon device to do anything. People don't know Cortana exists. I don't think I have even seeing a commercial about Cortana. I've seeing plenty of Alexa and Siri commercials. Quite frankly Cortana is disappointing anyways
  • Cortana isn't on Alexa right now so that probably explains why you haven't seen people doing that. I agree with you though, Microsoft's execution on Cortana just like their execution in general on all things outside of Cloud is TERRIBLE.
  • Oh I guess I misread the article. I thought it was already in Alexa
  • .......... but we have 3D DoOoOdLes !!!11!!!!!1!!
  • "admitted the digital assistant and ambient computing markets evolved differently than Microsoft expected in a concession to rivals Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa" Just means, we came out with a product, that should have done better than what everyone else was doing, but once again we sat on it, and just watched what was happening around us. Now we lost that space and are done with it. Seriously, I hate Google and Apple, but I really am getting to the point where I can't get excited for anything MS brings out anymore.
  • 4+ years of development, no forward progress. What a waste.
  • From what I can tell, their development has focused on making Cortana smarter, and there has been progress there. But they should have put more effort into marketing, and into making it easier for third parties to extend Cortana. In some ways it's like Windows Phone - Cortana has no apps. Meanwhile, one of our local grocery stores just started letting you place an order through Alexa.
  • Whatever the reason is, who cares how good it is if no one uses it? 1% mindshare is ridiculous for something installed on a few hundred million devices.
  • And we still haven't gotten someone serious about marketing at Microsoft. You would have thought they would have tried to get someone new to lead that by now. Complacency at its best.
  • Hmm… So much for the initial energy from MSFT. Makes me wonder, what the AI team is doing lately?
  • Packing up their cubicals for the inevitable firing thats coming their way! Cloud needs more money freed up. Get your cubical packing kits here folks. 29.99. Includes a 2cu ft packing box, roll of packing tape, some bubble wrap, a box of tissues and a F U Satya sticker to stick on the cubical on the way out!
  • Google assistant is what Cortana should have been? Really? "OK Google" is one of the most disappointing downgrades when I moved from Windows Phone to Android. Cortana is more personal and more useful. I'm not saying MS hasn't made mistakes with Cortana, but the only reason Google Assistant is any more successful is because it generally comes with Android. Alexa, on the other hand, is pretty darn good. They've done an excellent job from both the user side and the developer side. They're kicking butt for a reason.
  • But, honestly, where can those of us who absolutely love and rely upon the Cortana experience on Windows phones even GO to have that same experience? Nowhere.
  • Anywhere but here DRDiver!
  • Like you all, I fail to understand what Microsoft is doing when it come to software, hardware and innovation. Windows Phone/Mobile were amazing to use and the features seemed to be ahead of what the competition (Apple and Google/Android) were doing. Zune was also an amazing product and when Zune transformed into Groove, I was excited. What broke my heart, was when I couldn't pair my ZuneHD 32, with Groove. Then, not long after Groove was created, Microsoft "ended" it. The same seems to be happening with Cortana. Here is what myself and many others thought, would be an awesome assistant that would rival the likes of Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. Cortana should've been at the forefront of the digital assistant market and yet, for some odd reason, has taken a backseat. I realize that Microsoft has some plan of where it wants to be and how it can become even more relevant than it already is, but the two things it should not have dropped the ball on are Windows Phone/Mobile and Cortana.
  • Typical Cloudsoft. What do you expect?
  • I must say Jason his articles have become way interesting now that realism about the consumer side has finally kicked in and that all the ‘la vie en rose’ theories are finally tuned down to real world analysis and conclusions. Good job!
  • What I actually care about is the ability to direct my phone, my tablet, my PC, completely hands-free. I care about being able to give commands, have my information fed back to me and interact with it without having to TOUCH THE FLIPPING DEVICE. I LOVE Cortana on my Lumia devices specifically for that. And it's almost decent on the tablet and PC. But then you take a look at the ridiculously LAME implementation of Cortana on iOS or Android. Virtually useless. And I REFUSE to use Google's crap any more than I absolutely have to. Once again, Microsoft has gotten me to embrace, enjoy and rely upon one of their products, only to totally screw it up.
  • Looks like you are going to Google and chromebook then buddy! that's where you will get all that and more!
  • Microsoft🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄
  • Looks like Microsoft needs to integrate with Google now. How, dissapointing. "Hey Cortana, ask google to set a doctors appointment for next week anytime."
  • Alexa is so innacurate when I ask it for something, sometimes I ask it five or six times and it still doesnt work. Google is mostly spot on. So I use the Google mini.
  • This is the problem that has faced MSFT for the past 20 years or so. They need to have a mission statement strategy. Who are their target audience and what is the message they are trying to convey? Apple is all about consumer appeal and high end hardware and performance. Google is all about versatility and convertibility across a spectrum of price points for the consumer. MSFT has been the lead in enterprise for the last quarter century but now they seem to be at a crossroads where they are still trying to appease the enterprise realm but show they can woo the consumer space as well. The only real success MSFT has had doing this was with the Surface brand, but you saw a certain level of commitment and vision with that. If Cortana is supposed to be an AI assistant, they need to market that. If she was supposed to assist us with functionality and integration then that should've been the message from the beginning. Letting you know when is a good time to leave work because traffic is light, was one feature I loved about Cortana but it was never advertised. MSFT needs to make their minds up on what their focus is because they seem to want to touch all sides only to fold on some of them a few years later. I don't see how having Cortana on an Echo is good for Microsoft being as Alexa is on a Windows 10 PC? I guess we'll have to see how integrated Alexa is on Windows 10.
  • Cortana is perhaps the saddest casualty of the Nadella administration. While the loss of Win mobile was more demoralizing, because Cortana had a name, it was even more a personal loss. I remember how exhilarating it was when Cortana first popped up over our car Stereo speakers asking me if I wanted her to read an incoming text! 3 years later... that's pretty much so it. She can't even identify songs anymore. I think the worst thing is though the message it sends... the message that Microsoft seems loathe to finishing what it starts. Microsoft "strategy"... Start project... get all excited... hype it up at Build... get devs excited... let devs spend 1000s of hours and dollars building upon the ecosystem of said project... proceed to let said project wither on the vine... under market it... keep it relegated to US only... tell everybody how "committed" you are to it... support it just barely enough to keep it on life support... then write a best seller on why it's in everybody's best interest to repurpose it (if we're lucky) or outright abandon it (if we're not)... rinse and repeat. At this point MS should just kill Cortana completely, let Windows users choose either Alexa or Google Assistant, and just build some "skills" for Alexa and Google Assistant that integrate with its own software. Sad? Yes, painfully so, but just get it over with!
  • BTW nice article! Totally agree that Google Assistant is what Cortana should have been. I/O was absolutely "off the hook" (pun intended).
  • Thanks OnTheSurface! Glad you liked it.
  • I switched to google now. I was tired of the lack of progress Cortana was making. Just wish they would open up the APIs so could use IFTTT to send my google reminders to Cortana so I get them on the PC
  • I think the whole crux with Cortana failing in the market is microsoft's lack of focussing on global support, especially out of the box language support. This problem, in my view, goes all the way back to Tell Me with Windows Phone. In all these years I've never experience the Cortana "personal" assistant, simply due to the lack of language and region support. I think it has merely been a project to reach out to a selective market focus for profit as bing is one of the background engines behind Cortana. Bluntly said a blind shortterm focus on money and profit, but at the cost of something of better value in the long run.
  • Its absolutely stupid. If alexa is available who cares abt cortana
  • Is Alexa built into Windows10?
  • It ll be. Hp etc are already bringing in Alexa to their line of pcs
  • Lol I can't wait to start my tech company lol
  • But we won't see any of this Alexa integration outside the US?
  • The whole Cortana/Alexa thing is just clunky and borderline ridiculous. It's like having to jump in one car, so you can get access to the one you actually want to drive. So of course they're 're-positioning' Cortana, because yet again, they blew it.
  • M sure its just a way to get off from the market. Since they dont want to publicly retrench cortana so they announce this to save face.
  • I'm just gonna say it and you tell me simply yes or no. Microsoft is loosing another battle. Another CONSUMER battle.