Analysis To encourage people to demand more of their software-based assistants, Amazon and Microsoft plan to link their respective voice-based helpers – Alexa and Cortana – so they can talk to one another.
The tie-up, to be consummated later this year, will allow Alexa users to book meetings and read email messages, among other things, via Cortana's Office 365 integration.
It will also work in the opposite direction, enabling Cortana users to bark orders into an Android phone, iPhone, or Windows 10 PC (for those who find the one-click web too onerous) to direct Alexa to control smart home devices like Amazon Echo or to buy two tons of creamed corn on Amazon.com.
Echo is Amazon's speaker-mic hardware kit that provides a way to interact with Alexa and is the most popular of a growing genre of cloud-connected eavesdropping devices from technology platform companies.
Google has Google Home, which houses the unsentimentally named Google Assistant. Apple is preparing to upgrade Siri's accommodation with its HomePod in December. Samsung is said to be working on a speaker for its Bixby software, available as an unpolished beta in its Galaxy S8. Microsoft meanwhile awaits the introduction of the Harman/Kardon Invoke speaker, with Cortana inside, as housing for its code designed by HP.
IT cheerleader Gartner last year opined that the market for such speakers will reach $2.1bn by 2020, up from $360m in 2015, based on the assumption that voice recognition technology will continue to improve and that the devices will become capable of more than timer setting and spouting trivia.
In a phone interview with The Register, Werner Goertz, research director at Gartner, said the partnership between Amazon and Microsoft solves problems for each company.
Amazon, he said, has a significant presence in consumers' homes, due to the popularity of its Echo devices. Microsoft, meanwhile, has access to enterprise data.
"Alexa, by using Cortana, gets into the enterprise," said Goertz. "Cortana, by using Alexa, gets access to a whole lot of devices."
These devices, which Goertz refers to as VPAs (virtual personal assistants), suffer from their lack of compatibility. "All these VPAs have been non-interoperable," he said. "It's like Verizon customers not being able to reach AT&T customers. This morning's announcement is the first indication that may change."
At present, triggering one product with another and passing data in a secure way often requires middleware or hacking. And for many scenarios, obviously useful capabilities just aren't available. For example, you cannot currently direct Google Home to play streamed speech from a remote phone or an emailed audio file.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos suggests intelligent agents will have different areas of competency, so it makes sense to help them communicate.
"Together, their strengths will complement each other and provide customers with a richer and even more helpful experience," said Bezos in a statement. "It's great for Echo owners to get easy access to Cortana."
It may be awkward before it gets great. Always-on assistants that take orders from anyone within microphone range have led to unauthorized Amazon purchases by kids and TV broadcasts. That's not the sort of system business types want trawling through their data stores.
Goertz said that one of the challenges the industry has yet to solve is how to handle security and authentication for devices designed for communal use. ®