Microsoft has extended support for Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa, on Windows 10 devices, with the potential for other digital assistants to join Alexa and Cortana on the operating system. Windows users running the 19H2 test build can now access Alexa alongside Cortana on the devices lock screen. Build notes accompanying the latest release indicate that Microsoft has enabled "third party assistants", however currently there are no public plans for collaboration with other assistants developers.
Microsoft’s collaboration with Amazon was announced in 2017; since then several significant milestones have been reached. In August 2018, Alexa became accessible through the Cortana interface on Windows 10 PC. This occurred in conjunction with the Cortana skill being made available on Amazon Echo devices, granting Microsoft’s assistant access to Amazon’s smart speaker ecosystem. Microsoft also extended Alexa support to its Xbox One console, allowing users to activate their console using Alexa as well as trigger games. Previously, these features were exclusive to Cortana.
Microsoft’s previous attempt at the smart speaker market, a partnership with Samsung premium audio brand Harmon Kardon, the Invoke, was supported by enhancements to video and voice communications software Skype. In November 2018, Amazon enabled these features on its Echo devices, allowing users to make direct calls between Alexa devices in addition to Skype applications on PCs, tablets and smartphones as well as to fixed and mobile lines. This addition unlocked functionality which was previously only available to Alexa users through the addition of the Echo connect, a peripheral only available in the US.
At the launch of Windows 10, Microsoft promoted Cortana integration as an exciting new feature, however, over the ensuing years there has been wide concern that the assistant may be abandoned in future. In 2018, Cortana was moved out of Microsoft’s research division and into its Office and Experience team. This move led to a significant change in tact for the assistant; rather than focusing on making Cortana an assistant for Windows, the Office team envisioned the assistant as a tool to support the Office ecosystem, using its infrastructure to deploy functions such a file synchronisation across multiple devices and platforms.
Microsoft’s deployment strategy means that Cortana has the second largest native installed base of the major digital assistants, surpassed only by Google Assistant with its Android base. However, IHS Markit’s recent Consumer Research – Devices, Media and Usage study found that just 13.7% of digital assistant users across eight markets indicated they had accessed Cortana. In contrast, Amazon’s Alexa, whose device base is just 14% that of Cortana’s, was used by 36% of digital assistant users.
Although the addition of Alexa to Windows 10 devices will extend the potential reach to over 700 million devices, it is however unlikely that this move will drive a significant boost in users for Amazon. Instead, it is likely that usage will be greatest amongst the intersection of PC based Cortana users and Amazon Echo owners. Although Microsoft has been slow to promote its assistant, it is likely that the PC form factor is a far greater barrier to usage than the assistants notoriety or capabilities (which are in many cases comparable or exceed that of Alexa). The smart speaker offers an always on un-intrusive interface, better suited for the home environment than the traditional PC or laptop form factors which are a device usually turned on to be actively engaged with.