The Voice Interoperability Initiative lets Cortana live without its own hardware

Cortana and Alexa
Cortana and Alexa (Image credit: Windows Central)

Microsoft missed the wave of smart home speakers despite its late entry with the Harman Kardon Invoke. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella admitted as much nine months ago, reiterating the need for Cortana to complement Alexa and Google rather than compete directly.

The recently-announced Voice Interoperability Initiative looks to be an extension of the Amazon-Microsoft digital assistant partnership, inviting Salesforce, Sonos, Sony Audio Group, Spotify, Verizon, Orange, and Qualcomm to the table to all work together on voice-enabled devices and services.

The move is the right one and merely a continuation of Microsoft's efforts to redefine Cortana in a Windows Phone-less world. It's also good for consumers and the push for AI.

Interoperability is key to the future (and it always is)

Cortana and Alexa

Cortana and Alexa (Image credit: Daniel Rubino/Windows Central)

Microsoft has been pushing Cortana as an extension for Office 365 for the last year. The concept is simple: Cortana has access to Outlook, Word, LinkedIn, Microsoft Edge, To Do, OneNote, and other productivity-focused skills that only Microsoft can deliver. What Microsoft is not good at is all the smart home stuff that Google and Amazon are now dominating.

The same problem exists for Google and Amazon, but in reverse. Those companies (primarily Amazon) have no access to the business world or even what's on your PC. They can't help with emails, Exchange, LinkedIn, or anything that is done on Windows 10. Those voice assistants exist mostly in a consumer-siloed space either on your smartphone (Google) or your kitchen (Amazon).

The world that Microsoft sees (and wants) is not one where a single voice-assistant does everything, everywhere. Google may want that, but it means that consumers and businesses would have to surrender a ton of data to one company. There's also no clear path for Google to extend its reach into enterprise as it has almost no serious reach in the business world. The same goes for Apple, Amazon, and Samsung.

For Microsoft, the ideal smart AI world is one where "agents" from various companies talk to each other. That's the idea behind the Voice Interoperability Initiative. In the press release about the project, Amazon spelled out the goals:

  • Developing voice services that can work seamlessly with others while protecting the privacy and security of customers
  • Building voice-enabled devices that promote choice and flexibility through multiple, simultaneous wake words
  • Releasing technologies and solutions that make it easier to integrate multiple voice services on a single product
  • Accelerating machine learning and conversational AI research to improve the breadth, quality, and interoperability of voice services

The grand idea is for these systems to have simultaneous wake words. As the press release notes:

The initiative is built around a shared belief that voice services should work seamlessly alongside one another on a single device and that voice-enabled products should be designed to support multiple simultaneous wake words.

If such a project works it means Cortana on Windows 10 can not only call up Alexa but any other digital assistants that are participating. Moreover, it removes the current cumbersome tasks of first waking the primary assistant to ask for the secondary one. This approach would have a neutralizing effect on the hardware as the speakers around us all effectively become voice vessels for the world.

Smart speakers just become hardware

Cortana doesn't work yet on the Versa 2, but it may with this iniative.

Cortana doesn't work yet on the Versa 2, but it may with this iniative.

For Microsoft, the beauty here should be apparent: The Invoke speaker and GLAS thermostat were market failures. With this initiative, Microsoft no longer needs to take risks in either building hardware or partnering with others only to fail.

This strategy should sound familiar. It's the one behind Windows PCs, where Microsoft lets its OEM partners take 98 percent of the market. Microsoft can then focus on what it does best: software and services.

Surface still exists to "set the bar" and push the industry in specific directions – and with that approach, we may see more Cortana-hardware in the future. But no longer does Microsoft need to worry as much. After all, Microsoft is not a hardware company in the traditional sense.

The new Fitbit Versa 2 features Alexa. Now imagine if Alexa can open Cortana directly on the Versa 2. That's something that could happen. And for Microsoft, it solves a big problem: consumer reach. Should Microsoft create a wearable just for Cortana, or would it be easier to ride on the coattails of Fitbit and Amazon? The answer is obvious.

The reverse is true for Surface Headphones. While some may find Cortana useless, imagine if Surface Headphones worked with Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant. Suddenly, those headphones become a lot more attractive.

Google, Apple, and Samsung are still missing from the Voice Interoperability Initiative at this early stage. Google, for its part, said it did not know about the initiative until recently. That could all change as this consortium begins to come together. Let's hope it does.

The Voice Interoperability Initiative is an excellent example of a nascent industry taking the next step forward. It's also one that will serve consumers the best. Personal information can remain siloed, standards will be adopted, and privacy compliance rules for businesses enforced. And we get a world where digital "agents" are free to flow without barriers.

Microsoft Cortana, and why the future of AI is contextual

Even if you think Cortana doesn't have a future, you have to applaud this effort. When combined with the opening of Cortana on Windows 10 Microsoft and its partners are pushing the industry in the right direction that's best for everyone.

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been here covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics and ran the projectors at movie theaters, which has done absolutely nothing for his career.

  • I like the idea of the back-ends talking to each other to get the data. I would hope this could result in people being able to choose what "front end" they use based on voice and some special features, and having that be able to run on a variety of hardware. I use Alexa for most things, but still prefer Cortana's voice as the most natural sounding.
  • Honestly this is required if anyone wants to compete with Amazon. Despite predictions of Google taking over this space, in the past two years Amazon has gone from 62% to 70% of the market and Google's growth has plateaued since they stopped giving away hardware with Pixel purchases. I'd love to use Alexa as a general voice assistant for control of my home and other smart devices plus general queries, while using Cortana for my personal information and business. The path for there to be more than a single big fish and a couple smaller ones is to enable all of them so that different companies can make specialized assistants that work on any hardware alongside Alexa.
  • Amazon Alexa is dead outside bedroom, Googles assistant is everywhere in cars, smartwatchs, Chromebooks
  • Odd statement, Amazon has more deals with automakers than all other assistants combined, and it's not even close. As I pointed out, they own 70% of this market and its been growing. The product categories you mention either they have almost no presence in (cars), they have a limited market for (Chromebooks) or they have been a market failure in (smartwatches). The only significant market Google owns is their own phones, and to date phones are not a preferred device for smart assistant usage. I certainly consider Google to be the most credible challenger to Alexa, however that hasn't taken place and its been years now.
  • I’m torn as to whom to side with. This is a trojan horse to get Alexa onto more devices. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, that’s the end goal of every for-profit business. What really makes it a trojan horse is that Amazon, when given enough market control, stops playing well with others. I doubt Amazon will be singing kumbaya once they hit a billion installs. That said, I’m currently juggling three different voice assistants and it’s irksome. Not every company can fulfill my hardware needs, nor can every company do it at the price point I want. So what I’m left with is a hodgepodge of assistants and hardware. It would be like buying a PC for Photoshop and then realizing Photoshop can only be installed on specific Dell machines. So being locked to one assistant per device doesn’t help me at all. While I understand there are a ton of devices out there that can use multiple assistants, many of the devices I want don’t have that ability. I would enjoy a world where any assistant could be used with any smart device. I’m just not sure if Amazon is truly the company to trust to make this happen.
  • I really don't like the idea of having to use multiple assistance to get things done. This one for this purpose, that one for something else. It's far more confusing. Microsoft could compete with Cortana. It was once up there with the best of the digital assistance. They just don't seem to want to focus on the good things that came about with Windows Mobile. There are more kinds of mobile devices than just phones.
  • "I really don't like the idea of having to use multiple assistance to get things done. This one for this purpose, that one for something else. It's far more confusing."
    Curious, how do you see it as differing from the current skills system? It seems like it would be just another skill, except you can do it directly.
  • Back when Windows Phone was a thing, and Cortana first came on the market, I always thought she was the "smartest" of the smart assistants. Microsoft did great things with her, and really had her make my life easier. One of the features I miss the most is how she handled text messaging while driving. I still think her ability to send, dictate, and reply to messages is something that has not yet been beat. With that being said, I do get why her role is changing, and I still think she is great and keeping me productive through the day. I will still go to Alexa for stupid games, jokes, etc. Hell, I'll still invoke Cortana (get it?) for stupid things as well, but at the end of the day I think having the ability to talk with the assistant that is best suited for the job, is a great thing. I for one, while sad that Cortana isn't my main assistant, am excited to see what this brings.
  • Daniel, thanks for this intelligent take on this initiative by Amazon. It was far better than others I've seen on the web that were excuses for rants about this or that company. This is a natural outgrowth of Amazon's overture to Microsoft a year or so ago about making Alexa and Cortana work better together. I am hopeful this produces results. I've used Alexa on my Versa 2 far more in the first week than I expected, and she can't even do that much on this device yet. I'd love to be able to check my calendar and send a quick email reply from Outlook with her on that device. And by the way, the Versa 2 is really a perfect device to use with a voice assistant. Not having a speaker for the responses solves many privacy issues.