IF THE FUTURE of computing really does look like Her, and everyone will soon be talking to their devices and falling in love with the soothing voices in their ears, Microsoft is sitting pretty. Or at least, it ought to be: Its Cortana virtual assistant already integrates seamlessly into Windows 10, works on iOS and Android, and will start showing up in cars soon. It's good for work, good for play, even has a cool name. Yet Cortana gets left out of the voice assistant in-crowd, because it's missing one key thing: a smart speaker like the Google Home or Amazon Echo. Those in-home devices have become the first place most people use these assistants, and Microsoft just doesn't have one. Until now.
The new Invoke speaker, made by Harman Kardon, is more or less a direct copy of the Amazon Echo—a tall, cylindrical speaker with a blue light at the top that glows when the speaker is listening to you. It can control some of your smart-home devices, set reminders, name the members of One Direction (RIP), and many other things Echo or Home can also do. So far, the Invoke appears to have exactly one unique feature: It can make and receive calls with Skype. OK, so it's like an Echo plus a speakerphone. Except, wait, the Echo and Home will do that soon too.
The Invoke is very much a me-too device, but that's precisely the point. Whenever Apple launches its Siri Speaker, it'll probably do all the same things too. Harman's making a big deal out of the Invoke's sound quality—three tweeters! 360-degree sound!—and its Dalek-like design, because those are the ways it can convince people to buy this device instead of an Echo. These companies can compete on sound quality and design and the intense awkwardness of their respective wake-words, but none of these speakers will ever be meaningfully better or more exciting than the others. Smart speakers are quickly becoming tablestakes gadgets, the way for all these companies to assert control over your entire voice-enabled life.
An in-home speaker is particularly important for Microsoft, which lost the smartphone race and thus has no way into people's handsets other than the Cortana app that few will download and fewer will use. But on desktops, Windows has such massive market share that millions of people use Cortana by default—145 million, in fact, according to Microsoft's latest numbers. In order to make a lasting dent in this new market, though, Microsoft needs its virtual assistant to be everywhere, including on devices people don't just get from their IT department. With the Build conference coming up this week, Microsoft reportedly plans to open up its Cortana Skills Kit, letting developers build for its assistant. Microsoft's whole strategy is to blanket the earth with its software, so expect more speakers soon.
The smart speaker market is still new, and the voice assistants that power them aren't perfect yet. But Microsoft might already be late to the game: a recent study projected Alexa will have 70.6 percent of the market for voice-assistant devices, and lumped Microsoft into the tiny "other" category. The Invoke isn't coming out until this fall, either, which is a long time to ask users to wait—and enough time for Google, Amazon, and everyone else to make a lot of progress. If Microsoft doesn't hurry, and can't find a way to make Cortana worth waiting for, speakers like the Invoke may find that coveted space in your living room is already full.