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Microsoft and Amazon start publicly testing Cortana-Alexa integration

Microsoft and Amazon finally are making available to the public their promised Cortana and Alexa integration across Windows 10 PCs and Echo devices in early preview form.

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Almost a year ago, Microsoft and Amazon announced a deal via which the two would enable their respective virtual assistants to work together. On August 15, the pair are taking the next step in this process, by opening up initial integration between Cortana and Alexa to the public, beginning in the US.

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Starting today, U.S.-based users who want "early access to the collaboration" can start talking to Cortana via their Echo devices and to Alexa on Windows 10 devices and Harman Kardon Invoke speakers, which are powered by Cortana.

"This integration will allow Cortana users to ask Alexa to shop on Amazon, manage their Amazon orders and access many of Alexa's third-party skills. Alexa users will have access to Cortana's knowledge and helpful productivity features such as calendar management, day at a glance and rich email integration. Over time, additional skills and features will be integrated," explained a Microsoft spokesperson.

The ability to stream music and set alarms across digital assistants are skills that are not available yet. The plan is to enable more device types and skills over time, Microsoft officials said.

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The pair are calling this integration a "public preview," which will allow Microsoft and Amazon to get feedback so they can improve the integration experience.

Microsoft and Amazon officials have said the goal of integrating Cortana and Alexa is to be able to carry out different tasks both at home and work on whichever device is most convenient. Cortana and Alexa can each be enabled as a skill on the other, Microsoft officials said today.

Microsoft is in the midst of working to reposition Cortana as more of a productivity aide -- something embedded in apps and services that can provide assistance.

As Microsoft and Amazon demonstrated at the Microsoft Build conference in May, the procedure for invoking Cortana on Alexa devices (and vice versa) is rather awkward.

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On a Windows device, users need to say "Hey Cortana, open Alexa," in order to make requests like querying Amazon shopping deals or asking for an Alexa-powered thermostat to set a temperature. On an Alexa-powered Echo, users need to say "Alexa, open Cortana," (or click the microphone button and say "open Alexa") to ask things like "What new emails do I have?"

Microsoft and Amazon originally planned to make Cortana and Alexa integration available before the end of calendar 2017, but decided they needed more time to improve the cross-assistant experience. In recent months, Cortana-Alexa integration has been in testing inside Microsoft and with select Amazon users.

I have to say, I am not sure this integration will be widely used.

Amazon has launched its own Alexa for Business service which seems to be able to do many of the types of tasks which Cortana is being designed to optimize. I asked Microsoft officials if Microsoft and Amazon are integrating Cortana with Alexa for Business and was told no.)

Also: Amazon Alexa: Cheat sheet TechRepublic

I guess Microsoft execs may look at the Cortana-Alexa integration as a way to make up for Cortana's huge skills gap compared to Alexa. Cortana now has just over 250 skills; Alexa has more than 40,000. But I just don't see most people thinking about relying on different digital assistants for different types of tasks.