Tech giants are battling to position their smart speakers as the center of the digital home. But Microsoft, which lost the mobile wars to Apple and Google, is trying to ensure that it will have a place, no matter who wins.
Microsoft has its own voice-based digital assistant, Cortana, that could theoretically power a challenger to the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple HomePod for countertop space. Indeed, Cortana is already core to a smart speaker from Harman Kardon. But CEO Satya Nadella is also thinking about how Cortana can live in harmony with other digital assistants.
“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?” Nadella said earlier this week, referring to Amazon’s digital assistant. The CEO made the remarks at a media event, according to Business Insider. “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.”
Alexa users have been able to summon Cortana through Alexa, and vice versa, since last year. Nadella said he also wants to bring Cortana to Google Assistant. Microsoft declined to comment about whether it will stay out of the smart speaker business.
So what could Cortana bring to your Amazon Echo or Google Home that Alexa and Assistant don’t already provide? Your Outlook email and calendar, for starters. As we explained when the Cortana/Alexa integration was first announced in 2017, Microsoft doesn’t have much of a retail presence, and Amazon’s workplace productivity game is weak. Together, Cortana and Alexa can make up for the gaps in their parent companies’ offerings and could help both fend off competition from Google.
It’s less clear how Google, whose Google Suite office-productivity package competes with Office 365, would benefit from working with Microsoft on a similar integration between Cortana and Google Assistant.
Even if Microsoft still has smart-speaker ambitions of its own, bringing Cortana to other platforms fits with Microsoft’s strategy in recent years of making its products available on as many platforms as possible, as opposed to just Windows.
The biggest example of the trend was Microsoft’s decision to bring Office to Android and iOS, a move that was announced the month after Nadella assumed the role of CEO in 2014. Since then, Microsoft has offered Skype support for Alexa, made many of its programming tools available for Mac and Linux, and launched versions of its SQL Server software for Linux, and its Microsoft Bot Framework for building chatbots for platforms like Slack and Facebook Messenger.
The strategy is straightforward. If Microsoft can’t own the platform, it still wants a presence. But that’s not to say that Microsoft is giving up on platforms. Windows isn’t going anywhere, and neither is its cloud computing service Azure. Much of the company’s cross-platform development efforts center around trying to attract more developers to Azure. Even before Nadella’s tenure as CEO, the company helped port popular open source tools like Git, Node, and Hadoop to Windows, and made Linux available on Azure. More recently it released the Windows Subsystem for Linux, which enables users to install Linux apps on Windows. Microsoft wants to be everywhere, but it’s still very much interested in being the platform for everything.