Microsoft shows off Alexa-Cortana integration, launches sign-up website for news

Microsoft still isn’t giving a timeline as to when its virtual assistant, Cortana, will support integration with Amazon Alexa – something the companies had announced last year. But the company at its Build developer conference today did show off how that integration will work, in an on-stage demo with support from Amazon, and it launched a new website for developers interested in receiving Alexa-Cortana integration news and information going forward.

When Microsoft and Amazon first discussed integrating their virtual assistants, it was described as a two-way street – that is, Cortana could pass requests back to Alexa, and vice versa. For example, Alexa customers would be able to access Cortana’s productivity features, like booking meetings, accessing work calendars, or reading work emails. Meanwhile, Cortana users could ask Alexa to control smart home devices, shop Amazon, or use Alexa’s some 40,000 skills. 

But there were some concerns those commands would be awkward, and that integrations like this could be unnecessary too.

At Build, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stressed the values of a more open system, saying “We want to make it possible for our customers to get the most out of their personal digital assistants – not be bound to some walled garden.”

Perhaps, though, what Microsoft really wants is to benefit from Alexa’s momentum.

In a brief demo, Microsoft Cortana GM Megan Saunders along with Amazon Alexa SVP Tom Taylor showed how Alexa and Cortana would work together. It didn’t look quite as unwieldy as you may have imagined.

Saunders directed her Echo speaker to “open Cortana,” which saw the digital assistant responding with a different voice, “Cortana here, how can I help?”

The experience seemed more like launching and using a third-party skill, rather than a series of tricky verbal commands.

She was then able to ask Cortana for information on her calendar, without having to say “Cortana,” or “Alexa” again – just “how’s my day?”

And she told Cortana to “send an email to Tom Taylor saying ‘I’ll see you tonight’” – again, without having to command the assistant by name.

After the Alexa-to-Cortana demo, Taylor showed off the reverse situation – calling up Alexa from Cortana.

While using Cortana on his PC, he said to Microsoft’s Assistant, “Hey Cortana, open Alexa.” Alexa responded in her own voice: “hi there, this is Alexa. How can I help?”

Taylor used Alexa to order an Uber using the third-party Uber skill and told her to turn off the lights.

He also asked Alexa what she thought of Cortana, to which Amazon’s assistant replied, with her typical cheesy humor, “I like Cortana. We both have experience with rings, although hers is more of a Halo.” Oh, hardy-har-har. 

Of course, what people really wanted to hear about is when the Cortana-Alexa integration would go live, and unfortunately there was no news on that front.

Saunders referred to the experience as still being in a “limited beta” for the time being, but did note the launch of a new website for developers.

Developers who are building skills for Cortana and Alexa can go to this new site in order to sign up to be notified when the integrations go live.

“For all of you developers out there building skills, Cortana and Alexa is going to enable access to more people across more devices,” said Saunders. “And we can’t wait to see what you build.”

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