(Credit: Microsoft)

We're only a few weeks into 2019, and new battle lines in the virtual assistant war are already being drawn -- though not in the ways that you might expect.

While Apple, Google and Amazon continue to commit billions to extending and perfecting their conversational AIs -- which users can interact with for everything from ordering a pizza to arranging a vacation -- Microsoft announced at a press event this week that it's pulling back on its ambitions for Cortana, the virtual assistant named after a character from its Halo series of video games.

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The Verge reports that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sees Cortana as a helper specific to Office 365, which is the subscription-based version of its productivity suite. However, he still wants Cortana to be able to interoperate with the Google Assistant (download for Android or iOS) Amazon Alexa (download for Android or iOS) and Apple's Siri assistant that comes pre-installed on iPhones, iPads and Macs.

As The Verge points out, Microsoft has already demonstrated a commitment to virtual assistant harmony, at least in Windows. Windows 10 added support for Alexa and Cortana cooperation in August, and Microsoft added a full-fledged Alexa app to the operating system a few months later. Windows 10 users can now literally ask Cortana to perform actions with Alexa.

A software platform is only as good as its hardware

While the Cortana AI has been around for several years, and Microsoft has the deep pockets to hone its skills, she has lacked an ecosystem of physical devices that could have helped to raise her profile.

Alexa burst onto the scene thanks to Amazon's Echo smart speakers; users have flocked to them for their ability to use basic voice commands to set alarms and reminders, check the weather, hear breaking news and perform fact checking. And Amazon has continued to add new features, such as the ability to handle SMS texting and phone calls.

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The Google Assistant, meanwhile, comes pre-installed on millions of Android phones, smart speakers, smart displays, smart TVs, Chromebooks and set-top boxes like the Nvidia Shield TV or the Roku.

Microsoft offers a Cortana app for Android, but it's not designed to work in concert with the more capable Google Assistant, and it can't unlock your phone's screen for security reasons.

In short, Alexa and the Google Assistant have a variety of stages on which to perform, while Cortana has largely been restricted to Windows 10. But given how much engineering talent and cash Microsoft has to spare, one hopes that the company will keep iterating on new ideas for its virtual assistant.

Takeaways

  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced this week that his company is scaling back ambitions for its Cortana virtual assistant, to optimize her as a helper for Office 365 instead.
  • One of the reasons for Cortana's struggle against Siri and the Google Assistant may be the lack of devices where she can be found. Cortana has largely been limited to Windows 10 PCs since she was first released to the public.

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Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.