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Can Cortana-Alexa Alliance Lead Digital Voice Assistants from Gimmickry to Utility?

A few years ago, I remember thinking that if Siri, Cortana and their digital voice assistant peers aspired to be more than gimmicks, their corporate parents would need to teach them to play nice with each other.

Few people live their entire digital lives on one platform. As an example, Cortana can be deeply integrated into your Microsoft-based work life, Siri into the iOS part of your personal life, Google Assistant into the Android portion of your personal life and Alexa into your shopping existence. Getting those assistants talking could open a lot of possibilities to simplify and unify things, rather than complicating and compartmentalizing them.

In the interim, I haven't thought about it much, mostly because the whole question seemed less important.

While Alexa has emerged as the humanized AI of the moment, it's obvious that despite her many cool capabilities, she exists in the world for one reason and one reason only -- to move more product from the silo, albeit the massive silo, of Amazon.com's e-commerce operation.

Cortana became steadily less relevant as Microsoft abandoned its once grand smartphone ambitions. Granted, she's on the ubiquitous Windows 10, but the voice interface is much less critical for a PC than a smartphone. It's clearly preferable to talk to a phone rather than to tap away on softkeys with your thumbs in many situations. There are far fewer use cases on a PC where talking is as efficient, let alone more efficient, than using a physical keyboard and mouse. Meanwhile, Microsoft seemed to be pivoting its efforts to concentrate on improving voice recognition services and APIs for developers rather than for Cortana, the personified digital voice assistant.

Siri, meanwhile -- and this is my completely anecdotal experience -- seems to be inexplicably getting less useful over time. When I first started using Siri two years ago, the voice recognition seemed better and the responses seemed more relevant, helpful and often fun. Lately the hit-to-miss ratio has been so low that I've mostly stopped asking Siri anything.

All of which is to say, the digital voice assistants launched as gimmickry, understandably and necessarily, but don't seem to be maturing into highly functional assistants that can make it easier to navigate your 21st-century life.

Then this week, out of the blue, Microsoft and Amazon.com declared that they'll have Cortana and Alexa talking to one another and asking one another for favors by the end of this year.

"This collaboration will allow you to access Alexa via Cortana on Windows 10 PCs, followed by Android and iOS in the future. Conversely, you'll be able to access Cortana on Alexa-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Show," said Andrew Shuman, corporate vice president for Cortana Engineering at Microsoft, in a blog post Wednesday.

Amazon.com's news release on the deal Wednesday extrapolated on the applications: "Alexa customers will be able to access Cortana's unique features like booking a meeting or accessing work calendars, reminding you to pick up flowers on your way home, or reading your work email -- all using just your voice. Similarly, Cortana customers can ask Alexa to control their smart home devices, shop on Amazon.com, interact with many of the more than 20,000 skills built by third-party developers, and much more."

In a New York Times interview, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos said he hoped that similar integrations with Apple and Google could be forthcoming, although both of those companies declined comment. While much focus will be on whether it's in Apple's or Google's interest to cooperate, that misses the point.

For digital voice assistants to have real value, these types of integrations are critical. Let's hope this two-member club becomes a four-member club in short order. A non-gimmicky future for digital voice assistants depends on it.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 31, 2017 at 9:05 AM