Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana Integration is Rolling out to Users Today – Here’s How it Works
Amazon announced on a blog post this morning that Alexa integration with Cortana is rolling out today for U.S. users as part of a public preview. The planned integration was first announced on August 30, 2017 and was demonstrated at Microsoft’s Build developer conference in May of this year. The post today states:
“Now you can now turn to Amazon Echo devices to access many of Cortana’s unique features: Check your calendar, book a meeting, read your email, and more. Get started with Cortana on Echo devices by saying, ‘Alexa, open Cortana,’ and you’ll be connected directly to Cortana. Follow the instructions, sign into your Microsoft account, and you’re ready to go.”
“Likewise, customers with a compatible Windows 10 device or Harmon Kardon Invoke speaker can enjoy many of the features they know and love about Alexa: control smart home devices, check the status of orders, and access tens of thousands of skills built by third-party developers. To get started, say, ‘Hey Cortana, open Alexa’ or click the microphone button and say, ‘open Alexa.'”
Cortana Permissions Workflow
Alexa didn’t recognize this verbal command for me this morning and directed me to enable the new Cortana skill in the Alexa app. When you do enable the Cortana skill it immediately takes you through a workflow of permissions. The first permission requests your device address. That then brings up a new set of permission requests which are displayed in an in-app browser and are from Microsoft mentioning that Cortana will have access to other information in your Microsoft account, a recording is made of your interactions and the audio is stored, that device information is provided by Alexa and that information may be passed to other third-party services.
Integration with Microsoft Services is Immediate
After you agree to the permissions, you are then asked to log into your Microsoft account or create a new one. I use Outlook on my phone and was immediately able to check my recent emails and calendar entries for the day. You do this by starting with the phrase, “Alexa, open Cortana.” After that you hear Cortana’s voice and not Alexa. On an Echo Show, you also see the Cortana logo displayed as a visual cue that you are speaking with Cortana and not Alexa.
Cortana then offers to help you access your email, calendar or other services. I asked for my emails and Cortana read off the senders of five recent emails. I was then able to select a specific email, have Cortana read it to me and even send a reply all by voice. Cortana asks if you would like to send a “short reply” which is an interesting cue to users. When I said I was “all done,” Cortana replied, “Okay, catch you later.”
Other Cortana Services Are Available, But There is a Catch
You can access Cortana services beyond Microsoft Office integration. Once Cortana is speaking you can ask her questions the same way you would on any other device such as facts, time, and weather. However, there is a catch. You can’t “barge-in” while she is speaking. You have to wait until Cortana is finished before you can speak again. On a Cortana-native device you can say the “Cortana” wake word and then ask a new question or offer a new command even in the middle of a response. On an Alexa-native device, barge-in requires you to say, “Alexa.” When you do that you bring Alexa back and break your session with Cortana. This probably isn’t a big deal, but illustrates some of the limitations of voice assistant-to-assistant hand-offs.
Alexa Now Accessible on Windows 10 Devices and Invoke Smart Speaker
The integration is bi-directional so you can also access Alexa through Windows 10 devices and the Harman Kardon Invoke smart speaker. To access Alexa, you say, “Hey Cortana, open Alexa.” On desktop or in a mobile app you can also click the microphone button and say, “Open Alexa.” Today’s announcement notes that not all Alexa features are available today.
“This is just the start for Alexa and Cortana, which means features like music, audio books, and flash briefing will not be available immediately. But the experience will continue to improve as we work with Microsoft to add new capabilities and features over time.”
Many Windows users will benefit from Alexa access even if they don’t have an Alexa-enabled smart speaker nearby. It also appears Amazon plans to offer the full Alexa experience over time. This fits perfectly into Amazon’s “Alexa everywhere” strategy which is focused on ubiquitous Alexa access for consumers as opposed to solely pushing the sale of Echo-branded smart speakers. With that said, the new Cortana access is limited to Echo branded speakers today and is not available through third-party Alexa-enabled devices such as Sonos One. The initial roll-out is U.S.-only and there is no indication when it will spread to new markets. You can read the full blog post here.