Microsoft Cortana-Powered Speaker Challenges Amazon's Echo With Skype Calls

By Jay Greene Features Dow Jones Newswires

Microsoft Corp. is hoping to challenge Amazon.com Inc.'s Echo smart speaker for a spot on the kitchen counter with a device from Samsung Electronics Co. that can make phone calls.

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The Invoke, which will debut this fall, comes more two years after the release of the Echo, which has sold more 11 million units through late last year, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley. It also will compete with Alphabet Inc.'s Google Home, which was released last fall.

The voice-controlled Invoke, made by Samsung's Harman Kardon unit, will use Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant to take commands.

Apple Inc. is rumored to be working on a smart-speaker device that uses its Siri digital assistant. And Samsung, itself, has developed its own voice-activated virtual assistant, Bixby, though the English-language version of the service has been delayed.

Like the Echo and Google Home, Harman says the Invoke will be able to play music, check traffic and let users try out smart-home capabilities such as turning on lights with voice commands. Harman highlighted the device's integration with Microsoft's Skype internet-calling service -- a feature neither rival has, though each reportedly is considering it for the next generation of their products.

The announcement Monday comes two days before the start of Build, Microsoft's annual developer conference in Seattle, where the software giant is likely to reveal new capabilities for Cortana.

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Dave Rogers, Harman's senior vice president of consumer audio, said the Invoke will have superior audio quality, an area where the consumer electronics maker has expertise. He also said the device would tap into Microsoft's productivity applications, such as calendars.

"Microsoft has a long heritage of productivity products that this device will seamlessly interact with," he said.

The Invoke looks similar to Amazon's Echo, though the cylindrical shape tapers toward the top. Like the Echo, the Invoke will come in black and white. Harman didn't disclose a price.

It is also unclear what apps will be available when the Invoke debuts. In a blog post, Marcus Ash, the partner group program manager for Cortana, noted that the digital assistant "works with select music services and home automation providers," but didn't disclose specifics.

Unlike Amazon and Google, Microsoft initially is relying on a partner to enter the smart-speaker market. It is a strategy the company has used in the personal computer market, where giants such as Lenovo Group Ltd. and HP Inc., sell computers running the Windows operating system, while Microsoft's own Surface line also competes with those partners.

A Microsoft spokeswoman declined to say what apps will work with the Invoke, and whether the company plans to introduce its own smart speaker.

While the market is still young, Amazon dominates. According to market research firm, eMarketer, Amazon's Echo holds nearly 71% of the U.S. voice-enabled speaker market, while Google has a nearly 24% share.

Write to Jay Greene at Jay.Greene@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 08, 2017 15:00 ET (19:00 GMT)