Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is signalling that change is on the horizon for Cortana, its voice-powered smart assistant.
Rather than focus on challenging Amazon’s mega-popular Alexa assistant directly, Nadella says that Microsoft will focus on making Cortana available as a skill, or app, on other platforms. Indeed, last year, Alexa users got the ability to summon Cortana and vice versa, as part of a major partnership between otherwise-rivals Microsoft and Amazon.
“Would it be better off, for example, to make Cortana a valuable skill that someone who is using Alexa can call? Or should we try to compete with Alexa? We, quite frankly, decided that we would do the former. Because Cortana needs to be that skill for anyone who is a Microsoft Office 365 subscriber,” he said.
But Nadella doesn’t want to stop with the Alexa integration: He wants Cortana to offer a similar integration with the Google Assistant, which powers the Google Home speakers and other devices. Microsoft and Google haven’t officially announced any such partnership, but Cortana is available as an app on both Apple iOS and Android. It is also integrated into the Windows 10 operating system.
“And you should also be able to use [Cortana] on Google Assistant. You should be able to use it on Alexa, just like you use our apps on Android or iOS. So that’s at least how we want to go,” he said.
Nadella’s comments came on Monday at an invitational media day at the company’s headquarters. Representatives for Microsoft and Google did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Nadella says that the decision to pursue this strategy came down to this: He looked at the speaker market and decided that if Microsoft created its own rival to the Amazon Echo or Google Home, it would be an also-ran. And he believes he doesn’t need to enter this young, burgeoning market category to take advantage of it.
This ties directly into Nadella’s broader strategy for Microsoft, which has seen the company open up to competitors in unforeseen ways — including releasing its own version of the once-hated Linux operating system, or working on a version of its Edge browser for Apple’s Macs.
“We are very mindful of the categories we enter where we can do something unique. A good one is speakers. To me the challenge is, exactly what would we be able to do in that category that is going to be unique?,” Nadella said on Monday.
Notably, Microsoft has dipped its toes into these particular waters: In late 2017, Harman Kardon introduced the Invoke, the first and so far only smart speaker running Microsoft’s Cortana. However, great hardware wasn’t enough to offset its $200 introductory price point, or the limitations of Cortana itself, and the Invoke never really took off.
Also of note is that Cortana itself is going through some changes: In November, recently-appointed Cortana head Javier Soltero announced that he was leaving Microsoft. Meanwhile, the company has indicated that the next major iteration of Windows 10 will move Cortana away from its place of prominence in the search bar.
Still, Nadella believes that there’s a lot of upside to Cortana, which offers deep integrations with the Microsoft Office 365 business productivity suite. Cortana can help users control their corporate e-mails and work calendars with their voice in an easier way than with Amazon Alexa or the Google Assistant.
In that light, Microsoft seems to be betting that Cortana becomes something of a Trojan horse: Rather than get into the notoriously difficult hardware game — something Nadella knows all about, in the wake of the failure of Windows phones — it can use Amazon and Google to give it one more way to reach Office 365 customers.
After all, Office 365 is a major revenue driver for Microsoft, and this strategy could keep it more relevant in a world increasingly reliant on voice technology. With Amazon and Google getting aggressive about selling millions of smart speakers, Microsoft can ride the wave.
Furthermore, Nadella is taking the long view that eventually software will get so smart that the voice assistant speaker you use won’t matter. Instead, people will tell lots of types of software to do all sorts of things for them, via voice, typing, gesture or what-have-you, and different agents
“You are going to have devices, just like you have anything else, that you would grant to do things for you, even with voice,” he said, adding that the idea that there will be just one way to talk to an assistant “makes no sense” to him.
Time will tell whether this strategy will pay off for Microsoft and Cortana.
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