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Satya Nadella
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at the 2017 GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Alexa’s impending arrival on several Windows PCs looks like it could be trouble for Microsoft’s Cortana, but its CEO Satya Nadella is not worried about it. In fact he welcomes Amazon’s digital assistant on Microsoft-powered devices.

Nadella said on a call with investors Wednesday that Microsoft doesn’t see an end game in the competitive digital assistant market where one virtual brain rules all. Microsoft’s approach welcomes other digital assistants on its devices, much like it wants Cortana to proliferate.

“That’s why we’re working with Alexa, and we would welcome it on our devices because we believe in a world where our own assistant should be available everywhere and so should other assistants be available on our devices,” Nadella said on a call with investors Wednesday.

Right now, Nadella says, digital assistants are “fairly dumb” when it comes to having conversations. The best they can do most of the time is a single question and answer.

That’s why Microsoft is putting so much time and resources into AI and teaching it to understand speech and text as well as humans can. Nadella envisions a future version of Cortana and other digital assistants that can have back-and-forth conversations with users about a variety of topics.

The logic behind the Cortana-Alexa alliance that will let the two digital assistants work together comes from the belief that each will have its own strengths and leverage the abilities of the other. Long-term, the goal is a deep integration in which each assistant simply knows to use the other for a specific task.

Where Cortana stands out, Nadella said on the earnings call, is the “crossover between work and life.” Cortana has a lot of information sources to draw from, including Windows 10, which counts more than 600 million users, Office 365, Xbox and Microsoft’s catalog of virtual and mixed reality gear.

The Harman Kardon Invoke speaker, powered by Cortana. (Microsoft Photo)

Nadella’s comments fit with a strategy that one of Microsoft’s top Cortana executives laid out in an interview with GeekWire at CES in Las Vegas earlier this month. As Amazon and Google are duking it out for control of the nascent smart speaker market, Microsoft is playing the long game.

“It’s a long journey to making a real assistant that you can communicate with over a longer period of time to really be approachable and interesting and better than the alternative,” Andrew Shuman, corporate vice president of Cortana engineering, told GeekWire earlier this month. “That is our journey, to make some great experiences that shine through, and recognize that long haul.”

Playing the long-game can be risky as tech giants compete to get third-party developers to build capabilities for the digital assistants and hardware makers to put them into their products. There remains a cautionary tale with Windows Phone, a well-made operating system and set of smartphones that failed to make a dent in the marketshare of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android because there wasn’t an appetite among developers for a third major operating system.

Cortana is starting to show up in more third party devices. More than two years after the debut of Amazon Echo, and a year after the release of Google Home, the first Cortana-powered smart speaker made its debut. That was followed by a Cortana-powered smart thermostat from Johnson Controls.

Microsoft earlier this month announced several new smart home partnerships at CES with Ecobee, Geeni, Honeywell Lyric, IFTTT, LIFX, TP-Link Kasa and Honeywell Total Connect Comfort. Microsoft said Cortana currently supports lights, outlets, switches, and thermostats across all providers.

The company also updated its Cortana software development kit for devices to help developers build the digital assistant into their products. The changes include a variety of reference designs from partners Allwinner, Synaptics, TONLY and Qualcomm to simplify building Cortana-powered products.

These announcements might not be sexy, but they provide a backbone for spreading Cortana’s influence and represent another sign Microsoft has no intention of pulling back from the competitive voice assistant market.

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