Did Alexa and Cortana just become best friends?

The Amazon and Microsoft voice assistants will soon work together.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Ben Fox Rubin
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Watch this: Cortana and Alexa team up, will talk to each other

Amazon's Alexa and Microsoft 's Cortana are personal assistants you can talk to, and now they're going one better. They'll soon start talking to each other.

If you use Windows for work but you also have an Amazon Echo , you'll soon be able turn to your Echo and say, "Alexa, open Cortana." That'll give you access to your Windows and Office 365 stuff like calendars, email and reminders through your Echo. 

Or if you favor Microsoft computers but want Alexa to control your smart home , you can say to your Windows 10 device, "Cortana, open Alexa." You'll then be able to control your smart home, shop on Amazon or use Alexa's many third party skills via your Windows device.

According to a joint statement from Microsoft and Amazon on Wednesday, Alexa and Cortana will begin talking to each other "later this year."

Voice computing is catching on as a significant new way to interact with devices. But the potential for this trend is so broad that even major tech firms are realizing they can't develop everything for this new world. That's a big reason why this deal came together between the two rival Seattle-area giants. Failure to get voice assistants to work together could end up holding them back, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in an interview with The New York Times about the announcement.

There's still a race among tech leaders to expand in voice as fast as possible. Besides Alexa and Cortana, there's Apple 's Siri, Google 's Assistant and, new to the party, Samsung 's Bixby. A driving force in getting people comfortable with these AI devices has been Amazon, which has been cranking out a variety of Echo speakers and getting Alexa compatibility into over 1,000 third-party devices.

The Microsoft deal should help Alexa become more useful in the business world, an area Amazon hasn't yet focused on for its voice assistant. But, with new tools like the Microsoft partnership and Amazon Chime, an online meeting and video conferencing service, the Echo may someday find its way into more office environments. It should also bring Alexa, which typically lives in Amazon Echo speakers, into millions of PCs. 

"The intrusion of Echo devices into the work space is inevitable," Gartner analyst  Werner Goertz said in a blog post Wednesday.

Cortana, meanwhile, should benefit from the broader exposure after being largely confined to computers and not having much in the way of smart-home capabilities. Customers should also gain by getting new skills on their existing devices.

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Amazon and Microsoft  -- who remain rivals in cloud services, tablets and video-chat software -- will only only exchange the needed information to process requests, which should benefit consumer privacy.

"Once you open Cortana, all voice data goes to Microsoft and not Amazon, and once you open Alexa, all voice data goes to Amazon and not Microsoft," Amazon spokeswoman Dawn Brun said in a statement.

Similar partnerships seem less likely between Amazon and Google, Apple or Samsung, which all are either selling or plan to sell rival smart speakers for the home. But Goertz predicted the leading voice assistants will partner with more bots from smaller companies that have specialties like translation or are stronger in different languages.

Amazon controls 70 percent of the US smart speaker market and has sold over 10 million Echo devices since the product launched nearly three years ago, according to market researchers. Meanwhile, Microsoft says there are 145 million Cortana users through Windows 10.

At a conference In June, Amazon's devices chief David Limp fielded a question about the potential for tie-ups between voice computing rivals. "We're open to that," Limp said of voice assistants talking to each other. "I hope there is a day when that happens. I don't know if I can envision it, but I hope it happens, on behalf of customers."

The partnership stemmed from the annual Microsoft CEO Summit in May 2016, when Bezos raised the idea to Nadella, and Nadella agreed, the Times reported.

While it may be a tad confusing to ask Alexa to ping Cortana at first, Bezos told the Times he sees a future when an AI is smart enough to route your request to the right assistant for the right task.

"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 a statement. "Together, their strengths will complement each other and provide customers with a richer and even more helpful experience."

Originally published Aug. 30 at 4:03 a.m. PT.
Updated at 5:43 a.m. PT:  Added background on Alexa and Cortana, and on the Amazon-Microsoft deal.

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