Cortana might not be the most popular voice assistant around, but Satya Nadella doesn’t have a problem with that. Microsoft’s CEO told media this week that the company’s strategy isn’t to expand its assistant’s reach at the expense of rivals like Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, or Amazon’s Alexa, but rather to work with competitors to incorporate Cortana in existing devices.
Cortana needs to be that skill for anybody who’s a Microsoft 365 subscriber,” he told the Verge. “You should be able to use it on Google Assistant, you should be able to use it on Alexa, just like how you use our apps on Android and iOS, so that’s at least how we want to think about where it’ll go.”
Nadella’s comments follow Microsoft’s recent decision to decouple search and Cortana in the Windows 10 taskbar. And they come after Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott said people shouldn’t expect to see a native Microsoft smart speaker anytime soon, in the vein of Apple’s HomePod or Samsung’s Galaxy Home.
“On the smart speaker side of things, we’ve got a bunch of partners who are building Cortana-powered things right now, and we’re super excited about all of those. [B]ut it’s not like we’re going to have a single Microsoft-branded Cortana smart speaker that’s going to be the thing that carries Cortana to customers,” he told VentureBeat in an interview.
While it’s true that Cortana is available on plenty of devices, including hundreds of millions of Windows 10 PCs and tens of millions of Xbox consoles, it lags behind other intelligent assistants in terms of overall adoption. Google expects that Google Assistant will be on 1 billion devices by the end of this month, including 10,000 dishwashers, ovens, light bulbs, and other smart home gadgets across 1,000 brands. Alexa, meanwhile, supports 28,000 gadgets from over 4,500 companies as of late last year.
Those stats likely motivated Microsoft to pursue a close partnership with Amazon, the fruit of which emerged this past summer in the form of an Alexa-Cortana integration. (As of August 2018, users can say “Hey Cortana, open Alexa” to Windows 10 PCs and “Alexa, open Cortana” to a range of Echo smart speakers.) In November, Microsoft brought Skype to Alexa, allowing folks to place outgoing voice and video calls, accept incoming calls, and make calls to domestic and international numbers via Skype’s eponymous SkypeOut service.
“The world is big and so multifaceted. There are going to be multiple successful intelligent agents, each with access to different sets of data and with different specialized skill areas. Together, their strengths will complement each other and provide customers with a richer and even more helpful experience,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement in August 2017.
No matter how Microsoft’s platform-agnostic Cortana strategy shakes out, voice-driven products are poised to contribute significantly to growth across the company’s core markets. ComScore estimates that 50 percent of searches will be conducted with voice by 2020. And OC&C Strategy Consultants forecasts that voice ecommerce sales could hit $40 billion in the U.S. alone in the next three years, coinciding with a 42 percent increase from 2017 to 2022 in the number of households that own a smart speaker.