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After nearly a year of waiting, Amazon and Microsoft this week brought Alexa to Windows 10 PCs and Cortana to Echo speakers.

Overnight, the move delivered Cortana to millions of Echo speakers and Alexa to hundreds of millions of personal computers in the United States. The Echo line of smart speakers continues to enjoy the largest market share, and Windows 10 is installed on nearly 700 million computers.

The partnership was made in recognition of the fact that we live in a multi-assistant world.

“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 when the partnership was announced last August.


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The idea makes sense. I’m ready for a world in which assistants feel more like apps you access on a platform rather than standalone operating systems.

I’d like to have to have an assistant dedicated to fitness, like the kind Google is reportedly working on, or one to help with cooking or meetings, maybe even one for dating or matters of personal growth.

Personally, I’d rather have assistants informed by mountains of data within an area of expertise than one with a range of moderately developed features that tells jokes.

The multi-assistant world is a narrative that works for Amazon and Microsoft and startups who want to enter the AI assistant space, but that point of view may be about more than the evolution of AI assistants. Their assistants need to live in a multi-assistant world, whereas Google Assistant and Siri arguably do not.

Google and Apple‘s assistants don’t need to branch out because they enjoy a monopoly where it matters most: in your pocket.

Smart speakers are growing at a rapid rate, with global sales up 187 percent in Q2 2018, but the smartphone is still far and away the device people are most likely to use when speaking with an assistant. This has been shown to be true in survey after survey after survey.

Unlike Microsoft and Amazon, Apple and Google have the option of tethering multimodal experiences to speakers and iOS or Android mobile operating systems.

That’s not to say companies like Microsoft and Amazon don’t stand a chance. As smartphone sales go flat, smart speaker sales are expected to grow sixfold in the years ahead. In fact, smart speakers represent an opportunity to disrupt the dominance of smartphones and change consumer behavior on a massive scale.

An Accenture survey of 21,000 consumers around the world found that the majority of smart speaker owners are less likely to use their smartphones for tasks like entertainment, purchasing, and general searches while at home.

Google has maintained its lead over Amazon in global smart speaker sales for the second quarter in a row, but it’s been suggested that Google should give away Home Minis for free because Amazon’s presence in millions of homes with Echo speakers could eat into Google’s search and shopping revenue.

Even being the native assistant on a smartphone doesn’t guarantee victory in the fierce competition for consumer loyalty. The assistant still has to, as Cortana product lead Javier Soltero put it, win the Pepsi taste test challenge for users.

Exclusive features that take advantage of each companies‘ unique attributes could lead to people preferring Google Assistant because Duplex is so good at automating appointment scheduling or favoring Cortana because its natural language understanding has been advanced by the work of Microsoft’s new conversational AI center at UC Berkeley. Could you imagine if Cortana got incredibly smart about LinkedIn and GitHub insights? That would be powerful and is something only Microsoft can do.

But barring some sort of extraordinary developments, assistants in smartphones still enjoy a key advantage.

We’ll find out in time if people actually use Cortana on Echo speakers or Alexa on Windows 10 PCs, or whether doing so changes expectations about how assistants should function. But no matter how this experiment is received, the smartphone is still the primary place people interact with an AI assistant, and not even a collaboration between two of the biggest tech companies on the planet can change that — at least for now.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Kyle Wiggers and Khari Johnson — and be sure to bookmark our AI Channel.

Thanks for reading,

Khari Johnson

AI Staff Writer

P.S. Enjoy this fun video about how to create an inspirational quote generator with machine learning.

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