Microsoft Cortana appears in Harman home hub, Amazon steals thunder

What should have been a big week for Microsoft in the smart home has been dampened by Amazon launching the Echo Show – a large touchscreen-enabled hub. The focus should have been on Microsoft’s Cortana assistant, and its entrance into the marketplace, housed inside a Harman Kardon cylindrical speaker.

Harman, now owned by Samsung, hasn’t announced a price for the Invoke speaker, but the device is set for a US launch in Q4. While Cortana first made its debut in the smart home via Insteon’s smartphone application, the move to a dedicated device is a strong step forward for the AI-based assistant – letting Microsoft catch up with rivals Amazon and Google.

Notably, Cortana could use any Windows 10 device or newer Xbox consoles as a smart home foothold, but Microsoft doesn’t appear to have had much success in converting PCs or home servers into smart home gateways – although it does appear to have a historic fondness for Insteon. Other platforms have experimented with using Windows as the basis of a smart home platform, and CastleOS was a particularly interesting offering.

But the Invoke is a foot in the door for Cortana, as a way for Microsoft to drive traffic into its Bing search engine and potentially boost engagement and revenue for its Windows platform. The data generated by the voice searches could be monetized in a similar fashion to Google, via advertising and marketing, and Cortana itself might end up being a driver for Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform – as a tool for developers to add to their own smart home products.

Harman Kardon is best known for its audio products, and the Invoke is likely going to be marketed as providing premium sound quality for music playback. This might mean that its launch price could be significantly higher than the Echo units and Google Home, which can be had for $130-180 – and notably, Amazon doesn’t sell its Google rival through its retail marketplace, much like the Chromecast.

Skype calls will be another feature that Harman uses to differentiate the Invoke, another Microsoft service, which gives Invoke callers access to both Skype accounts and regular phone numbers.

However, Microsoft doesn’t have an ecosystem of smart home devices for the Invoke to interact with, meaning that Cortana is going to have to play nicely with third parties in order to get any serious smart home credibility. Microsoft’s imminent Build conference might shed more light on those plans, but as far as we can tell, Harman hasn’t announced any integrations between the Invoke and devices like Nest thermostats, Philips lighting, or Samsung’s SmartThings platform.

Earlier this month, Amazon unveiled the Echo Look, a camera which can dole out fashion advice. A week later, it followed up with the Echo Show – a hub that integrates a 7-inch touchscreen to accompany the usual Alexa assistant functions.

Priced at $230, it houses a 5-megapixel camera for video calls to other Alexa applications users, a pretty small market we imagine. As well as the call, the screen can display feeds from compatible smart home cameras and baby monitors, as well as YouTube videos and the like. TV or over-the-top video doesn’t seem to be a focus, but the Show does have a ‘flash briefing’ feature that pushes news headlines and highlights to the screen, as well as automated calendar scanning.

Based on the user functions, it seems that the touchscreen is designed to be touched as little as possible, which helps retain the hands-free allure that made the original Echo so appealing. Powered by an Intel Atom x5-Z8350, the design has already drawn criticism from Nucleus, a start-up that has already released a pretty similar device.