Alexa vs. Cortana: What needs to change for Microsoft to succeed

Alexa vs. Cortana: What needs to change for Microsoft to succeed
The digital assistant and smart speaker industry is still young, but Amazon’s Alexa has emerged as a leader. It does have competitors, such as Microsoft’s Cortana. As of yet, though, Microsoft has not been able to catch up to Amazon in this area.

Both virtual assistants (VAs) do have their advantages and disadvantages, however. If Microsoft capitalizes on its strong points, it may be able to give Amazon a run for its money and stake its claim in the smart speaker and VA space.

So, how do Alexa and Cortana compare? Here’s how they fare across three aspects of their functionality.

Comparing accessibility

How you can access smart assistants directly impacts how useful they are. Alexa is available on Amazon products, including its Echo speakers, Amazon Fire tablets and Fire TV. It’s also available through several third-party apps.

Integrations are planned for a range of devices and appliances, including headphones, TVs, smartwatches and kitchen appliances. Several personal computer companies, including HP, Acer and ASUS, plan to introduce Alexa on their Windows 10 computers, as well.

Cortana comes standard on Windows machines, meaning introducing Alexa on PCs gives it direct competition. You can also download Cortana for Android and iOS.

The Invoke smart speaker from Harman Kardon uses Cortana, as well. However, as far as third-party devices and appliances go, Microsoft is a bit behind. At CES 2018, Microsoft only unveiled one Cortana-powered device.

Comparing usability

Digital assistants should be intuitive and user-friendly, so consumers can use them to truly simplify their lives. In this category, Alexa comes out on top, as well.

Getting started with Alexa is a quick, intuitive process. All you have to do to access basic functionality is plug in your device and sign in.

On many Cortana devices, you need to use a Microsoft account to sign in. If you’re using a Microsoft account, setup might be more straightforward for you. But, expanding how users can set up Cortana might simplify the process.

Comparing voice recognition and helpfulness

VAs vary in how well they can understand users’ queries and provide them with the information they need. Improving these capabilities requires advanced technologies, and today’s assistants are far from perfect in this area. They are continuously improving, however.

Alexa can answer relatively simple questions, but, like most VAs, often has trouble with more complex ones. It can respond to more commands than Cortana can, but the fact that it relies on specific wording sometimes hinders its usability. Relatively low noise can also interfere with Alexa’s hearing.

Like Alexa, Cortana is better with relatively straightforward questions. But, it’s a bit behind Alexa regarding the number of commands it knows. The Cortana Skills Kit, which enables developers to create new skills for Cortana, could help it catch up. The skills kit also allows users to transfer Alexa skills to Cortana.

Microsoft’s digital assistant tends to have a harder time understanding users than Amazon’s does. One advantage of Cortana is that it often knows more about its users if they use Windows products, so it can be more intuitive with the information it provides them.

Comparing integrations and extra features

The other systems you can integrate with your assistant can make a notable difference in how useful it is. Alexa works in Ford cars and has integrations with Uber, Spotify and more. Amazon is also experimenting with advanced features by including cameras and screens in some of their Echo devices.

Cortana, on the other hand, works with BMW cars. It also has a Skype integration via the Invoke speaker, which could help it compete with Amazon’s camera feature.

It also can use the power of Microsoft-owned products such as the Office Suite, LinkedIn and Bing. Cortana can’t, however, access Apple calendars.

Working together?

An exciting recent development suggests that Cortana and Alexa may be starting to get along. At Microsoft’s Build 2018 conference, Microsoft demonstrated Cortana and Alexa working together. The integration is still in beta, but the two can talk to each other, and you can use one to open the other.

This could be a foreshadowing of a future in which digital assistants become seamlessly integrated with one another. We could even start to see some standardization.

Cortana’s biggest strength

Alexa is ahead of Cortana in its compatible devices, its capabilities and the accuracy of its voice recognition. With Amazon having such a lead, how can Microsoft catch up?

The answer may be by doubling down on its strengths. Cortana has the advantage of a direct connection to Windows products, while Amazon’s specialties include online shopping and media. This positions Cortana to potentially become the leading VA for the business world.

To achieve this, Microsoft must improve Cortana’s usability to rival that of Alexa and focus on further developing the functionalities that could be useful in the workplace. Microsoft has indicated it may be heading in this direction. At the Build conference, Microsoft demonstrated how Cortana could help enable smarter meetings.

Amazon is competing in this space, too, though, with Alexa for Business. The two assistants can perform similar tasks, but Microsoft has more experience with business customers and has been earning their trust for years. This could give Cortana an advantage in the workplace — as long as Microsoft focuses on improving in the right areas.

*Contributed by Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a technology journalist and productivity-obsessed writer whose work has been published on MakeUseOf, VentureBeat, Motherboard and more. To see more of her work, visit

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