Microsoft wants Cortana to complement, not compete with, Alexa and Google Assistant

Cortana may not have seen the same sort of success as digital assistants like Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant, but Microsoft now sees those platforms as an opportunity for success, not competitors. At a media event reported by Business Insider (via OnMSFT), Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that the company wants to position Cortana as a skill for Alexa and Google Assistant, opening up valuable integrations for Office 365 subscribers.

In his remarks, Nadella dismissed the idea of competing with Alexa directly. Rather, he cited Cortana's potential as a valuable skill:

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.

And while Microsoft and Google aren't exactly known for working together, Nadella was open to making Cortana available through Google Assistant as well:

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.

Speaking further, Nadella acknowledged that Microsoft missed the boat on penetrating the smart speaker market. If it were to enter with its own speaker now, Nadella explained, it would have to come up with something truly unique:

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?

Microsoft's strategy with Cortana is similar to its strategy on mobile in recent years. Rather than competing directly with Apple and Google in the smartphone space, Microsoft has shifted to providing its services as apps across its former competitors. Indeed, Microsoft is now looking to reposition Cortana even in its own products as the AI backbone across its services.

While Microsoft does have at least one Cortana-powered smart speaker on the market, the Harman Kardon Invoke, it never managed to take off. On the other side, Amazon and Google have managed to stake a claim on a significant portion of the market with their ecosystems of smart speakers and displays. Cortana is also generally more limited in its skillset than Alexa and Google Assistant – though it is tightly integrated with Microsoft's own services.

Microsoft has already started working hand-in-hand with Amazon, bringing Cortana and Alexa closer together and allowing Echo devices to interact with Xbox One consoles. Whether Google and Microsoft can work out a similar partnership remains to be seen.

Dan Thorp-Lancaster