Microsoft quietly adds Cortana features; still testing Alexa integration

Microsoft is adding new features to Cortana, such as the ability to check for new emails and hear them read aloud, as well as enabling its assistant to respond without the initial 'hey.'
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Video: Can Cortana ever catch up?

Microsoft is slowly but surely introducing new features to Cortana, including the ability for the Microsoft personal assistant to check for and read new emails aloud.

Members of the Cortana team discussed some of the new feature additions during the March 6 monthly Windows Insiders webcast. These new features seem to be debuting first on the Harman Kardon Invoke speaker, which is powered by Cortana, as well as in Windows 10 for PCs.

The ability of Cortana to respond to commands -- like, "Did I receive any emails since last night?" -- is (mostly) working for me on my Harman Kardon. Cortana can read the sender's name and the subject line, plus ask if I'd like it to read the message. I had to make a few attempts to get this to work. It so far only seems to work from my work mail account, not Outlook.com, but it's there. I didn't have luck getting Cortana to accept me drafting a quick response via voice, however.

Additionally, Cortana users soon may no longer need to start their interactions with "Hey" when summoning Cortana.

I noticed recently that I could talk to Cortana on the Invoke by just saying "Cortana" instead of "Hey Cortana." I thought this was a bug, not a feature. But it turns out this change is by design and is rolling out first to Invoke and Windows 10 users, Cortana team members said this week.

There's no word when and if these features will be turned on for Cortana users on other countries beyond the US and on other platforms, including iOS and Android.

I wonder whether Microsoft's removal of the "Hey" piece of the Cortana wake-word is part of its work to integrate Cortana with Alexa.

Last summer, Amazon and Microsoft announced that their respective personal assistants would be able to talk to one another so customers could opt to use the assistant most suited to a particular task. Amazon and Microsoft officials said last year that they'd make Cortana-Alexa integration available before the end of calendar 2017. Since then, there's been no word on when this might actually arrive.

The Cortana team members told Insiders this week that the Cortana-Alexa integration is in "internal self-hosting" at Microsoft at the moment. Microsoft is working to "make sure it's (the integration) a great experience," the team said, noting that bringing together the two different speech stacks is "non-trivial."

And I'm sure Alexa laughing at Cortana isn't helping matters...

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