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Microsoft and Amazon sync AI voice assistants Alexa, Cortana

The integration of the AI voice assistants Alexa and Cortana combines Amazon's familiarity among consumers with Microsoft's adjacency to office productivity software.

Microsoft and Amazon have launched the first phase of a long-awaited integration between Alexa and Cortana. Although currently targeted at consumers, the partnership could boost adoption eventually of AI voice assistants in the workplace.

The link between the two platforms lets users access some basic Cortana features through Alexa-enabled devices, and vice versa. The public preview works on Amazon Echo speakers, Windows 10 computers, and Harman Kardon Invoke speakers.

Both vendors appear poised to benefit from the partnership, which brings together Amazon Alexa's large footprint in the consumer market with Microsoft Cortana's link to office productivity tools, said Werner Goertz, analyst at Gartner.

"Alexa and Cortana can address my needs as a private individual and as a professional knowledge worker," Goertz said. "That is a very important and winning combination."

If Microsoft and Amazon decide to pursue a long-term partnership, the deal could pose a challenge to Google and Apple, the two other big players in the market for AI voice assistants.

But Microsoft and Amazon will likely approach the relationship cautiously given that they compete against each other on many fronts, said Jon Arnold, principal analyst of Toronto-based research and analysis firm J Arnold & Associates.

"They will know in time if it's a good idea or not," Arnold said. "And if they get the synergies, then they will do more of it. And if not, then they will put the walls back up."

One possible stumbling block is Alexa for Business, which is excluded from the integration with Cortana launched this week. Released by Amazon in late 2017, the platform connects Echo speakers to enterprise messaging and meetings software.

The absence of a link between Cortana and Alexa for Business -- at least for now -- suggests their creators are targeting the partnership primarily at consumers, said Juan Gonzalez, analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

"While it may seem that both companies can gain and benefit from this agreement, it's still not clear who will grab the lion's share of it," Gonzalez said. "Will this initiative be the beginning of a long-standing partnership where both companies can combine forces against Apple and Google? Only time will tell."

Cortana-Alexa integration starts off small  

For now, users need to command their smart devices to open the alternative AI voice assistant software: "Hey Cortana, open Alexa," or "Alexa, open Cortana." The two vendors said they were planning for a more seamless link between the two platforms in the future.

Until then, office workers could use an Echo speaker to have Cortana check their morning emails and meetings. At work, they could access Alexa through a Windows 10 work computer to monitor package shipments or control smart home devices.

But many advanced functions, such as music streaming, are not yet available across platforms, as Microsoft and Amazon seek customer feedback during the public trial. The two tech giants first announced plans to sync their AI voice assistants in August 2017, initially promising a paring by the end of last year.

"It's still very clunky. ... In the end game, that should look a little bit different," Goertz said. "There should be some intelligent mechanism that determines which of the two personal assistants would be the ideal one in any given circumstance to respond to the user's command."

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