Microsoft Joins the Home-Speaker Party With Invoke

By Jay Greene Features Dow Jones Newswires

Microsoft Corp. is set to enter the fast-growing voice-enabled speaker market on Sunday, nearly three years after rival Amazon.com Inc. launched the pioneering Echo.

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Microsoft's entry comes via a partner, Samsung Electronics Co.'s Harman Kardon unit, whose Invoke speaker will use Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant to take commands.

Similar to Amazon's original Echo, the Invoke is a Pringles can-size speaker that can play music, check traffic and answer questions about sports scores or historical facts.

Microsoft and Harman Kardon announced plans in May to launch the Invoke, priced at $199. In August, Harman Kardon said it also would launch the Allure, a voice-enabled speaker using Amazon's Alexa.

Though Microsoft's arrival to the market comes years after Amazon's, the company is betting the Invoke can draw customers in with its connections to Microsoft products that have millions of users, such as the Office productivity franchise and Skype internet-calling.

Cortana, like Amazon's Alexa, will take commands from users. Because of its integration with Office, Invoke users also will be able to add appointments to their Outlook.com calendar and check the time and location of their next meeting.

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"We have to play to the strengths we have," said Andrew Shuman, a Microsoft vice president who runs the Cortana engineering team.

The Invoke, though, faces significant hurdles. Amazon has a huge head start in the market and a bevy of voice-enabled speakers that start at $50. It recently introduced a second-generation Echo, priced at $100, and has expanded its offerings to include smaller devices that connect to speaker systems, portable versions, and a voice-enabled gadget with a screen.

Alphabet Inc.'s Google unit, which entered the home-speaker market a year-and-a-half ago, has, like Amazon, recently refreshed its lineup, with devices ranging from a large $400 speaker to a $50 gadget that is smaller than a doughnut. Apple Inc., meanwhile, is preparing a $350 voice-enabled speaker, the Home Pod.

Microsoft's speaker isn't just late, said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with market-research firm Creative Strategies; it also lacks meaningful differentiation.

The Invoke includes smart-home capabilities such as turning on lights with voice commands, but so do its rivals, Ms. Milanesi noted. And while it can make calls to phones using Skype, Amazon's and Google's devices enable landline calling.

With some stuff that could have been a differentiator, they missed the boat," Ms. Milanesi said.

Another hurdle for Invoke: One of the core uses of home-speaker devices is to play music, often using each company's on-demand service. But Microsoft earlier this month said it was discontinuing the ability to stream, purchase, and download music from its Groove Music app.

Invoke users who want to stream a specific song need a premium account from Spotify AB. Meanwhile, popular music-streaming app from Pandora Media Inc. won't be available on the Invoke at launch.

The market for voice assistants -- and the artificial-intelligence technology that powers them -- is too important for Microsoft to miss, Ms. Milanesi said. She expects Microsoft and its partners to continue to introduce new devices that make use of it.

"Something else has to come, and they need to figure out what that is," Ms. Milanesi said.

Microsoft's Mr. Shuman said taking Cortana outside of Windows and putting it in other environments is important, and the Invoke is only the beginning.

It is critical digital assistants "be where you are," Mr. Shuman said, whether in a speaker or a home computer, or in a headset at work. "Whatever the device is, we want Cortana available wherever the user is."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 20, 2017 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)