Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa will begin “talking to each other” by the end of the year, letting each voice assistant’s users leverage the unique capabilities of the other in an unusual collaboration between the Seattle-area tech giants.
The partnership, announced this morning, began with a suggestion from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at the Redmond company’s CEO Summit last year, the two leaders told the New York Times. Bezos told the New York Times that he would “welcome” Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant to join them, but doesn’t know if those companies would be interested.
“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,” said Bezos in an Amazon news release. “Together, their strengths will complement each other and provide customers with a richer and even more helpful experience. It’s great for Echo owners to get easy access to Cortana.”
Nadella added in the same news release, “Ensuring Cortana is available for our customers everywhere and across any device is a key priority for us. Bringing Cortana’s knowledge, Office 365 integration, commitments, and reminders to Alexa is a great step toward that goal.”
The integration will begin by requiring users of either voice assistant to specifically “open” the other. For example, Windows 10 users will say, “Cortana, open Alexa,” and Echo users will say, “Alexa, open Cortana.” Then they can use Cortana (via Alexa) to set a reminder or read work email, or use Alexa (via Cortana) to control smart home devices or shop on Amazon.
Long-term, the goal is a deep integration in which each assistant simply knows to use the other for a specific task, Bezos told the New York Times’ Nick Wingfield.
The connection will start on Windows 10 and Echo devices before expanding to link Cortana and Alexa on Android and iOS, said Andrew Shuman, corporate vice president of Cortana engineering, in a Microsoft post.
After starting out in different universes — Microsoft on PCs and Amazon in e-commerce — the two companies have become increasingly competitive in recent years, especially in the public cloud, where Microsoft’s Azure is going after market leader Amazon Web Services. Those cloud initiatives are closely linked to the artificial intelligence efforts of each company, with the voice assistants serving as key AI interfaces.
But Bezos is nothing if not pragmatic, and one of Nadella’s hallmarks as Microsoft CEO has been his willingness to strike strategic partnerships with longtime rivals.
Both companies have struggled on smartphones, with Amazon’s Fire Phone fizzling and Microsoft de-emphasizing its Windows Phone initiative. Google and Apple have had more success with Android and iOS and their own smartphone hardware as major inroads for their voice assistants.
However, Microsoft is able to leverage more than 500 million active Windows 10 devices, and Amazon has emerged as a leader in smart home speakers with its Echo lineup, with an estimated 10 million of the Alexa-powered devices sold as of May.
Note: Initial reference to Cortana and Alexa corrected since original post.