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‘Cortana, Open Alexa,’ Amazon Says. And Microsoft Agrees.

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Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, in Seattle, April 26, 2012. Amazon’s new Prime Wardrobe program, announced on June 20, 2017 and available only to members of the Amazon Prime membership service, will allow people to order clothing and only be charged for items that are not returned in the resealable shipping box. - MATTHEW RYAN WILLIAMS/THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • Matthew Ryan Williams/The New York Times
  • Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, in Seattle, April 26, 2012. Amazon’s new Prime Wardrobe program, announced on June 20, 2017 and available only to members of the Amazon Prime membership service, will allow people to order clothing and only be charged for items that are not returned in the resealable shipping box.

By NICK WINGFIELD
© 2017 New York Times News Service

SEATTLE — Voice-controlled digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are good at numerous things. They can help people play music, set up calendar appointments and check the weather.

They can even get two rival tech executives, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Satya Nadella of Microsoft, to join in a rare partnership.

For the past year, the two companies have been coordinating behind the scenes to make Alexa and Cortana communicate with each other. The partnership, which the companies planned to announce early Wednesday, will allow people to summon Cortana using Alexa, and vice versa, by the end of the year.

It is unusual for big tech companies to cooperate on new technologies that they want to stand out from the competition. But Bezos and Nadella are concerned that keeping assistants from working together could hold them back.

In an interview Friday at one of Amazon’s Seattle high-rises, Bezos predicted that over time people would turn to different digital assistants — also called “AIs,” for artificial intelligence — the same way they turn to one friend for advice about hiking and another for restaurant recommendations.

“I want them to have access to as many of those AIs as possible,” Bezos said.

As an example, Bezos cited Cortana’s superior integration with Outlook, the calendar and email application that is part of the Microsoft Office suite of software. Through its collaboration with Microsoft, Amazon said, Alexa users will get answers to some of the same questions that Cortana can answer — for instance, when is the next budget review with the boss?

Initially, someone working with an Alexa device will have to say “Alexa, Open Cortana” followed by the command, while someone starting with a Cortana machine will have to say “Cortana, Open Alexa.”

The Amazon-Microsoft partnership started in May 2016, when Bezos raised the idea with Nadella at Microsoft’s CEO Summit, an annual event for business leaders in the Seattle area.

In a phone interview, Nadella compared digital assistants like Cortana and Alexa to competing web browsers that provide access to the same pools of information. “The personality and expertise of each one will be such that if they interoperated, the user will get more out of it,” he said.

Bezos said he had not reached out to Apple or Google to invite them to join in the effort and did not know if they would want to.

“I’d welcome it,” he said.

“Hopefully, they’ll be inspired by it,” Nadella said. “At least that would be my hope.”

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment, while a Google spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.