Harman Kardon Invoke review: Cortana isn’t too comfortable in the home yet…

Harman Kardon Invoke review: Cortana isn’t too comfortable in the home yet

  • Valentina Palladino
  • 10/30/2017 1:21 pm
  • Categories: TechView non-AMP version at arstechnica.com

harman, kardon, invoke, review

reader Комментарии и мнения владельцев

56 with The voice assistant most of us overlook is the one that is available to more than 500 million of us on Windows PCs. Microsoft’s Cortana has been sequestered in laptops and desktops for too long, but now it finally has a home in your home via the Harman Kardon Invoke Smart speaker. This is Microsoft’s first attempt to compete with Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, both of which have established Smart speakers (not to mention various versions of them). Microsoft is betting on sound quality to set its Smart speaker apart from the rest and convince customers to choose Cortana as their home AI buddy. Cortana needs to have a presence free from the PC, but what might hold the Invoke back initially is Cortana’s limited usefulness as a home assistant.

Design and sound quality

Microsoft’s collaboration with Harman Kardon has been nearly a year in the making, and the final result looks like the first-generation Amazon Echo. The Invoke speaker has a tapered, cylindrical body with speaker grille openings on nearly the entirety of its body. The Invoke’s base has the Harman Kardon logo on the front as well as the power connector, service-only micro USB port, mic/on-off button, and Bluetooth pairing button on the back. The top features an adjustable volume ring and a touch-sensitive panel that glows when Cortana is listening for your command or when the volume changes. Microsoft and Harman Kardon clearly took note of the original Amazon Echo’s design when making the Invoke but made sure to give it their own spin. Instead of saying “Hey, Cortana,” you can touch the top panel to manually make her listen to you, and you can turn the adjustable ring to change the volume instead of asking Cortana do it via a voice command. Inside the Invoke are three woofers, three tweeters, two passive radiators, and a 40-watt amplifier that create 360-degree sound that can truly fill a room. Harman Kardon has been making audio devices for a long time, and that expertise shines through the Invoke. In comparison to the new, 99 Amazon Echo, the Invoke is certainly the device to get if you want a capable speaker to fill a room with rich audio. The new Echo doesn’t get nearly as loud as the Invoke can, and in general, it produces a softer, more hollow sound. By contrast, music played through the Invoke has power behind it, and the bass is noticeable without being overbearing.

Further Reading

I often listen to electronic-inspired instrumental playlists while working, and I always choose the Invoke over the new Echo as my primary speaker for its rich, voluminous playback. While its quality sound and volume range may not be enough to fill an entire home with audio, it was more than enough for my one-bedroom apartment. You may need something more powerful and versatile, like the Sonos One, if you have a bigger home or often have loud, thumping house parties. Apple and Google may also have good alternatives when their respective HomePod and Home Max speakers come out later this year. Also inside the Invoke are seven far-field mics designed to pick up your voice from far away. This is one of the most important features of any Smart home speaker with a voice assistant inside, because the assistant has to be available to you even when you’re in another part of your home. I set the Invoke up in my living room, atop a five-foot-tall bookshelf, and it was hit or miss when I wasn’t in my living room and called for Cortana. First, you must say “Hey, Cortana” to wake the voice assistant—no variation of this command works, and you can’t change the wake-up phrase in the Cortana mobile app. A number of times I said, “Cortana,” thinking it would hear me, but all my questions and commands went unanswered. Second, Cortana simply didn’t react when I said commands or asked questions from another room or when my voice was too soft. I often had to walk into my living room or raise my voice to get an answer. I don’t like raising my voice at my home devices, but I had to yell at Cortana sometimes to get it to do anything. Even when Cortana worked as promised, I missed the visual feedback provided by the Amazon Echo. While the Invoke’s touch-sensitive panel lights up when Cortana hears your initial command, I never saw those lights because I placed the Invoke on a bookshelf. That’s not a defect of the device but, rather, an unfortunate consequence of my placement. If you plan to put the Invoke in a place where you can’t see the top of the device, you won’t get that visual cue that Cortana is listening. You can, however, turn on activation sounds so the Invoke emits a small sound after Cortana recognizes your initial call. Overall, I prefer the visual cues on the Amazon Echo provided by the circular blue ring that lines the circumference of the top of the device.

The touch-sensitive pad (in the middle of the volume adjuster wheel) glows when Cortana is listening or talking.

Cortana at home

Music and other audio

If you’re familiar with any AI assistant in a Smart speaker, you know how Cortana in the Invoke is meant to work. Cortana is basically your hands-free doorway to the Internet. You can ask Cortana about simple things like the weather or the latest news stories. You can ask it to set timers, reminders, and more. If you use Microsoft services like Outlook.com and Office 365, Cortana can remind you about upcoming meetings on your calendar. However, Cortana only integrates with a few such services: Skype, Outlook.com, Office 365, Dynamics CRM, Knowmail, LinkedIn, and Wunderlist. If your life lies beyond those systems, Cortana can’t tell you much about your day ahead.

Further Reading

Cortana also only integrates with a few music providers: Spotify, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio. Microsoft is currently talking with Pandora to add support, but we don’t know when that will come to fruition. I use a paid Spotify account as my main music source, and Cortana accurately played most of my saved playlists when asked. You can also be less specific and ask Cortana to play the music of a certain artist or genre if you wish. Like the Amazon Echo, you can forego the Cortana’s connected convenience and play music from your smartphone or other devices through the Invoke after pairing it as a Bluetooth speaker.

I had to use the Invoke like this whenever I wanted to listen to podcasts (a daily ritual for me). Cortana currently only has about 46 skills and doesn’t include a podcast player (nor does it integrate with any podcast providers), so I could only listen to my podcast backlog by connecting my iPhone to the Invoke via Bluetooth. Podcast support is getting better on many Smart home speakers, but none of the devices currently on the market provides an ideal experience.

I use Overcast to subscribe to and play all my favorite podcasts, and there’s no Overcast integration with Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, or Cortana. However, Amazon’s Alexa has the AnyPod skill that can play almost all of my favorite podcasts. You can even “subscribe” to podcasts using AnyPod, which essentially means the skill remembers your favorite shows and can play them all when you say, “Alexa, ask AnyPod to play my podcasts.”

There is hope for Cortana in this realm particularly because Microsoft and Amazon announced an unlikely partnership in which Alexa and Cortana will be able to “talk” to each other. This will give Cortana access to all of Alexa’s thousands of skills, which should mean AnyPod and other similar skills will work with Cortana. We don’t know when this support will roll out to Cortana users, however.


For now, though, enabling a Cortana skill is a bad and confusing experience. Not only are there very few skills to choose from right now, but you’ll grow some gray hairs trying to install just one of them. You must use the Cortana mobile app or Cortana on a Windows device to enable a skill. I use the iOS Cortana app, and the skills library is hidden in the Notebook option in the app’s menu. The Skills page has all your installed skills and a “discover more skills” link at the bottom. This opens up a Microsoft popup that looks no different from the main Cortana skills webpage. You can browse through “featured” and “all” skill categories, tapping on those that look interesting to learn more about them.

Let’s say you found a potentially useful skill and want to enable it: there’s no “enable” or “install” buttons on any individual skill page. You must tap “try now” underneath the skill’s name to try it out on the Cortana mobile app. This action doesn’t even send the skill to the Invoke—you must try it out using Cortana in the mobile app. When this works (the “try now” link didn’t work on many skills I tried), the app will prompt you to say a command the skill understands and then will ask you for permission before it actually completes the command.

After that necessary trial run, the skill magically appears in your installed skills list in the app. It’s the most roundabout way to enable a skill I’ve ever tried, and the Cortana mobile app failed a number of times during trial test runs. Cortana may gain access to Alexa skills, but Microsoft needs to improve the skills installation process (at least on its iOS app) if it expects anyone to use it without shaking their fists to the sky in frustration.

Skype calling

While you can pair the Invoke with a device as a Bluetooth speaker, you can’t pair it to another sound system or additional speaker. This is a feature included on Amazon and Google Smart speakers, allowing you to amplify the sound coming from the main Smart speaker to other parts of your home with “dumb” Bluetooth speakers you may already have. The Invoke may have great sound quality, but it would be even more practical and convenient for it to connect to existing Bluetooth speakers instead of being a standalone, incompatible device.

The Invoke works as a speakerphone for calls, and it’s compatible with hands-free Skype calling as well. There are no fees attached to this, so you can ask Cortana to call anyone in your contacts or any US number for free using Skype. You must connect your Skype account to Cortana via the mobile app first, but afterward, you can say, “Hey Cortana, call Mom” or “Hey Cortana, call 212-555-5555.” Calls are placed quickly, and Cortana will ask you to clarify which contact you meant to call if there are a few with similar names in your address book. Anyone I called said they could hear me, however, it did sound like I was on speakerphone. My audio quality was similar: clear, but with a slightly far-away tone. When you want to end a call, you can tap the touch-sensitive pad on the top of the Invoke and Cortana will tell you she’s “hanging up.”

Smart home and daily tasks

Much like Amazon’s Alexa, Cortana can control some Smart home products. Cortana doesn’t support as many Smart home devices and protocols as Alexa does, but it does support Smart Things, Wink, Philips Hue, Nest, and Insteon systems. It was quite easy to connect my Hue light system to Cortana in its mobile app, and I could then ask the assistant to turn on and off lights as I pleased. This came in handy the most when my hands were busy typing, cooking dinner, or something else. I also didn’t need to ask Cortana to turn off the lights when I left my apartment because Hue already has a geolocation tool that knows when you (your smartphone, really) leave the home and will automatically turn off the lights.

We often overlook voice assistants’ smallest features like setting timers and reminders and adding things to lists. However, those are my most-used features, and Cortana performs them well. Setting timers with my voice while cooking dinner or baking for a family occasion is incredibly convenient. I try to write down all the things I need to do in a day on a notepad each morning, but I have plenty of “lightbulb” moments during the day when I’m not near my pen and paper. Asking Cortana to remind me to call the dentist to reschedule an appointment or add take out the trash to my to-do list ensures I don’t forget to do small yet important tasks before the day ends.

The amount of emotion and intonation in Cortana’s voice is charming and pleasantly surprising. Microsoft’s voice assistant sounds more natural than both Amazon’s and Google’s, with fewer robotic transitions and a more natural flow. There’s a choppiness that both Alexa and Google Assistant can have when responding with long or multi-layered answers, but Cortana doesn’t have that. When speaking to it through the Invoke, it felt more like talking to a person than an invisible robot living in a speaker.

Cortana isn’t ready for the living room—yet

Harman Kardon is a great partner for Microsoft to have for Cortana’s introduction into the home. The Invoke clearly shows off Harman Kardon‘s audio expertise, producing loud, high-quality sound that’s both immersive and convenient. The Invoke could be your favorite Bluetooth speaker thanks to its sound quality and Cortana’s music streaming service integration (here’s hoping that continues to grow over time). The Invoke’s overall design feels slightly outdated considering its resemblance to the original Amazon Echo, but, nevertheless, it’s a well-built device that won’t be too conspicuous in most living rooms.

But Cortana isn’t as well equipped as other virtual assistants. The one-account, Microsoft-only support, as well as the lack of skills (and a good mobile skill experience), will hinder those who intend to use Cortana as more than just a virtual reminder-setting and fact-answering buddy. Accessing Amazon Alexa’s skill library should help increase Cortana’s usefulness, but as of now, Microsoft’s assistant isn’t optimized for the home as much as it should be.

The situation should improve. I hope other manufacturers create Cortana-enabled speakers so customers don’t have only the Invoke to choose from if they want Cortana in their homes. I’d only recommend the 199 Invoke to someone who prioritizes sound quality and only wants to dabble with a virtual assistant in their living room—or someone who lives and dies by Microsoft services. Harman Kardon made a great speaker, but the inclusion of Cortana makes the Invoke a less-capable Smart speaker than the Amazon Echo or the Google Home.

The Good

  • Great sound quality.
  • Convenient touch pad and volume adjuster ring.
  • Cortana has one of the more natural-sounding voices of all the AI assistants.
  • Conveniently makes Skype calls to contacts and other numbers.

The Bad

  • Cortana only responds to “Hey Cortana.” No variations allowed.
  • No Pandora integration at launch.
  • Not as many skills as Amazon’s Alexa.
  • Unable to connect to other Bluetooth speakers/sound systems.
  • No word on when Alexa and Cortana can “speak” to each other, which will open up Cortana to thousands of more skills.

Audio manufacturer Harman is integrating Microsoft’s Cortana into their upcoming Harman Kardon Invoke speaker system to compete with Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google’s Assistant.

Harman Kardon is a manufacturer of headphones, wireless audio equipment, and home audio systems; now the company can add voice-activated Smart home tech to its repertoire. Cortana by Microsoft will be added as a feature to the Harman Kardon Invoke speaker system, providing Microsoft with its first real competitor for similar voice-activated Smart home tech against Alexa by Amazon, Siri by Apple, and Google Assistant. The speaker itself has a polished metallic design that delivers 360-degree sound projection and is excellent from every direction. The speaker will be available in Pearl Silver and Graphite, and the “touch to surprise” user display interface on top lights up with function, giving the Harman Kardon Invoke a very futuristic look when operating. The Invoke utilizes Harman’s Sonique far-field voice recognition technology to provide flawless sound when making Skype calls.

What the Harman Kardon Invoke Can Do

  • Voice-control integrated Smart home functions
  • Conduct hands-free phone calls over Skype
  • Find information and answers to questions
  • Manage calendars and activities
  • Create reminders
  • Find the latest news
  • Check traffic conditions
  • And much more!

The voice-activated speaker system market has been dominated over the past few years by the likes of Siri in the mobile market and Alexa in the home market, but the Invoke hopes to give these industry leaders a run for their money. The Harman Kardon Invoke will require the user to have the Cortana application for Windows 10 on either a PC or mobile phone (Android version 4.1.2 or higher OR iPhone 4 with iOS 8.0 or higher). Some of the technical specs for the speaker include the following:

The Harman Kardon Invoke with Cortana by Microsoft will become available in Fall 2017. If you have any questions regarding Windows 10 or Cortana, contact us today!

Комментарии и мнения владельцев

Hey Tom, Good question, the harman kardon invoke speaker actually connects to computers via Wi-Fi and the Cortana app on your Windows computer. As long as you have Windows 10 and Cortana enabled you should be able to set up the speaker. You may still run into connectivity issues depending on how your office Wi-Fi is set up but the absence of Bluetooth shouldn’t stop the harman kardon invoke speaker from connecting to your pc. As far as connecting to a phone, your computers settings should effect the communication between the speaker and your phone. You should be able to download the app on your phone and connect. Hope that this helps.

Our Honeywell Computers do not allow Bluetooth connections, so we have to use USB connections. Can the HK speaker phone work with these restrictions?

harman, kardon, invoke, review

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Microsoft Cortana Voice Assistant to Available Through Harman Kardon Invoke Speaker

harman, kardon, invoke, review

Just when you thought Amazon and Google had saturated the Smart speaker market with their ever-expanding portfolios of voice assistant gadgets, along comes Harman Kardon with yet another option. As a relative late bloomer in the Smart speaker market, Harman Kardon has chosen the Microsoft Cortana voice assistant as its platform.

The timing, however, seems perfect, as Microsoft only recently announced its “Connected Home” section available on through the Cortana Notebook menu on some Windows 10 PCs. Connected Home lets you use your Windows 10 PC to relay voice commands to Smart home devices from Wink, Insteon, Nest, SmartThings and Philips (Hue).

Building off Windows 10 Platform

The upcoming addition of a Smart speaker with Cortana built in offers another, more natural method of launching voice commands to Smart home products. Unlike the Cortana Notebook which requires that you sign into each service individually before issuing voice commands, the Smart speaker—like other brands of Smart speakers—will listen for your edicts and carry them out completely hands-free.

First to Incorporate Skype

The Harman Kardon Invoke, set for launch sometime this month, employs Cortana so that you can use your voice to play your favorite music, manage calendars and activities, set reminders, check traffic, deliver the latest news and much more. With Skype integration, you can make calls to cellphones, landlines and other Skype-enabled devices. And, with ties to popular Smart home devices like Hue, SmartThings, Wink, Nest and Insteon, you can also control your Smart home devices using voice to do things like turn out the lights or control the temperature.

Packed with Music Playing Power

harman, kardon, invoke, review

With a solid background in audio reproduction, it’s a good bet that music played by the Invoke will sound great. It comes packed with three woofers, three tweeters, two passive radiators, and seven embedded microphones (for hearing voice commands).

“We’re excited to work with Microsoft to develop a premium speaker that will deliver an exceptional experience to every customer using 360-degree Harman Kardon sound and the intelligence of Cortana,” says Michael Mauser, president, Lifestyle Audio Division at HARMAN. “Voice-enabled technology is the future; by teaming up with Microsoft, we’re delivering on our promise of elevating a connected life through Smart technology, superior sound and the stunning design that is Harman Kardon’s hallmark.”

Availability and Pricing

Available in Pearl Silver (White) and Graphite (Black), Invoke embodies a sleek, modern design. Its metallic speaker cabinet delivers power and projects sound a full 360 degrees, filling even a large room or space. It will retail for 199.95, and will be available from select retailers and Microsoft Stores in fall 2017.

Lisa Montgomery has been a member of the Electronic House editorial team for nearly 20 years; most of that time as the Editor. With a knack for explaining complex high-tech topics in terms that average consumers can understand, her style of writing resonates with people who are interested in addition electronic systems to their homes, but are unsure of the steps involved and the solutions available. From basic lighting control systems to full-blown automation systems, Lisa understands the home electronics market well, and is able to point consumers in the right direction on their quest for a smarter, more convenient, efficient and enjoyable home.

Over the years, she has developed close relationships with key manufacturers and seasoned custom electronics professionals, giving her a keen sense of what home technologies are hot now and what’s on the horizon. She shares this wisdom regularly through feature stories, product roundups, case studies technology spotlights and comprehensive guides and books, which can be found on the Electronic House website, www.electronichouse.com.

Have suggestions or something you want to read about? Email Lisa at lmontgomery@ehpub.com

This Microsoft-powered 200 speaker is great for Spotify and Skype — but you’re probably better off with Amazon or Google

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  • The Harman Kardon Invoke is a 199 Smart speaker powered by the Microsoft Cortana voice assistant. It brings Microsoft into contention with the Amazon Echo and Google Home.
  • The Invoke hardware is great — the speaker is loud and clear, making it great for music. It comes with built-in support for Skype calls (even to telephones) and Spotify.
  • Cortana is Smart and useful, and integrates with Microsoft apps and calendars.
  • However, compared with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, Invoke doesn’t integrate with as many Smart home appliances, outside apps, or streaming TV devices, making it difficult to recommend.

We live in an age of miracles — it’s so commonplace now to use your voice to get information out of a computer, it’s almost boring. And yet, not all tech miracles are created equal.

Take, for example, the Harman Kardon Invoke, a new 200 Smart speaker powered by the Microsoft Cortana Smart assistant. While Microsoft didn’t build the Invoke itself, it’s still the tech titan’s first shot at the leading Amazon Echo and Google Home product lines.

Previously, Cortana was primarily only available on Windows 10 PCs, reaching over 140 million monthly active users. Now, with the Invoke, Cortana is going after the rest of your home, too.

The Invoke has a lot going for it: The sound quality is amazing, which is no surprise, given that Harman Kardon makes some of the best speakers in the world. And Microsoft’s Cortana doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its intelligence: It’s often smarter than Apple’s Siri or Amazon Alexa, and integrates with Office apps, too.

And yet, if you’re looking to buy a Smart speaker, I would generally guide you away from the Invoke, and toward one from Amazon or Google. Here’s why.

The good

I can’t say enough nice things about the Invoke’s hardware.

The external design is a matter of taste — at first I was sour on the Invoke’s casing, because I thought it looked like a prop from the next “Alien” movie. Now, after a few days with the Invoke, I kinda like it, for the same reason.

The inarguable part is that the Invoke sounds amazing. Even to my untrained ears, the Invoke sounds way better than any similarly-priced Google Home or the first generation of Amazon’s Echo speakers. And it’s loud, too: Even at 50% volume, it was way too much for my reasonably-sized kitchen, and I had to turn it down to around 30%.

And Harman Kardon and Microsoft have leaned into this audio quality. The two headlining features of the Invoke are its integrations with music streaming service Spotify and support for making calls with Skype.

Both services work great, in my own tests, and benefit greatly from the Invoke’s quality audio hardware. As a nice bonus, the Invoke can make free unlimited phone calls to landline and cellular phone numbers, by way of Skype. The Invoke also supports Bluetooth, to pair up with your phone or other music players, if you want that.

Otherwise, Cortana can do much the same stuff as Amazon’s Alexa and its ilk. You can set alarms and timers, check the weather, and control your Smart home gear. Another nice perk: If you set a reminder or a to-do item on your Invoke, Cortana will also remind you on your Windows 10 PC and/or Cortana phone app, or vice versa.

And Cortana is surprisingly Smart. Microsoft Bing gets a bad rap, but it’s really not as far from Google as everybody makes it out to be. Using Bing, Cortana is able to answer questions both practical (“How long do I boil a sausage?”) and esoteric (It nailed “What day was the Battle of Hogwarts,” though it mispronounced it as “Hogwatts for some reason).

Cortana also connects with Microsoft Outlook and LinkedIn — coming down the line is a Cortana feature that will use LinkedIn to give you a quick profile of everybody you’re supposed to meet in your next appointment. That said, the Invoke won’t currently hook up with Google’s Gmail and Google Calendar, which is a personal bummer, though a Microsoft spokesperson confirms that support is coming down the pipeline.

In other words, there’s a lot to like. But.

The big ‘but’

No voice assistant is an island. So much of what makes these things useful is their integrations with other products and services. It’s in this department that Cortana is sorely lacking, and brings the whole Invoke package down with it.

Here’s a big example. If you get an Amazon Echo, of any variety, you can use it to command an Amazon Fire TV. The Google Assistant, which powers the Google Home, can control Google Chromecasts or any Chromecast-powered TV. Cortana can’t control a Microsoft Xbox One or any other TV-connected gadget, at least not yet.

When it comes to Smart-home appliances, Cortana supports a few popular ones, including Smart bulbs from Philips Hue and Insteon. But Amazon, Google, and even Apple support a much broader swath of Smart home manufacturers, at least for now.

Another thing, too, is that you can use an Echo to shop on Amazon, and a Google Home to shop at Walmart, Target, and other stores. Cortana offers none of that, either. And if you make a shopping list, your only options to retrieve it are from Cortana on another device, or Microsoft’s doomed Wunderlist, with no other options to export.

Bafflingly, certain “skills,” or apps, that work with Cortana on a PC won’t work on the Invoke. Existing skills for calling an Uber or posting to. among others, have to be done from Windows (thought you can check the latest tweets from high-profile people like Donald Trump). Plus, Cortana doesn’t support playing the same audio from multiple devices, which is a bummer if you want to rig your house with Invokes.

So to make a long story short, the Harman Kardan Invoke is a great device, with great sound, and a lot of smarts — but with serious limitations, compared to the competition. Unless you just want to listen to Spotify and chat with Skype, and little else, I’d advise looking at a 99 Amazon Echo or 129 Google Home.

Besides, pretty soon, you’ll be able to access Cortana from any Alexa device, and vice versa. From that standpoint, it might be worth investing in an Alexa device now, so you can take advantage of Cortana’s particular strengths later.

The voice-enabled digital assistants are beachheads for technology in the home

If you’d never heard of a “Smart speaker” before last week, it’s understandable. So far, Smart speakers have mostly been the domain of early adopters, who aren’t afraid to risk a little cash on a new gadget.

But now that Apple has unveiled its Smart speaker offering, the HomePod, mainstream consumers are much more likely to pay attention.

Smart speakers are home digital assistants, using voice-recognition technology to deliver internet content in an interactive, hands-free way.

Users might ask their Smart speaker for a weather report while doing the dishes, or tell it to stream kids’ music while trying to wrangle a toddler.

Of course, most new smartphones can already do those things, since they have built-in voice-recognition software like Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant.

But Apple, Google, Amazon and even Microsoft are still betting on Smart speakers, and their motivations go well beyond simply selling more gadgets.

Selling you other services

For all four companies, a Smart speaker in your home serves as a platform to make money in other ways.

“Apple will want to sell you Apple Music as a service, and other services likely are to come,” said Bob O’Donnell, president of consulting company TECHnalysis Research. (Apple is touting its HomePod as a powerful hi-fi speaker above all.)

“Amazon obviously wants to do commerce-based services, and Google wants to do search and other kinds of things, potentially, where they can deliver advertising and other kinds of services,” said O’Donnell.

Unlike Apple, Amazon and Google, Microsoft hasn’t launched its own Smart speaker hardware. But speaker-maker Harmon Kardon recently unveiled the Invoke, a Smart speaker powered by Microsoft’s Cortana voice-assistant software, which is also built into the Windows 10 operating system and Xbox One gaming console.

“Microsoft, like these other companies, would like to be that central operating system in your life, be it in the car, be it on your phone, on a mobile device, or in the home,” said David Watkins, who researches connected home devices as a director with technology advisory firm Strategy Analytics.

A technological beachhead in your home

Smart speakers are already being designed to act as control points for so-called “Smart home” devices.

Over time, Smart speakers will “become a hub or a gateway to connect your Smart home appliances,” said Bob O’Donnell of TECHnalysis Research.

For example, Amazon’s Echo Smart speakers are capable of controlling a number of internet-connected home devices, ranging from lightbulbs to thermostats to door locks. The Google Home Smart speaker has similar functionality, and Apple’s HomePod promises to do the same.

Current Smart speaker users tend to use their Smart speakers for relatively mundane applications like streaming audio and checking the weather, but experts say the trend is toward more sophisticated use.

“Ultimately we expect some of those other applications, like controlling lights, like ordering goods online, and even making phone calls, those kinds of things will start to take more prominence in terms of the usage statistics,” said Watkins.

Paving the way for a voice-controlled future

Smart speakers also serve as a proving ground for the voice-processing technology in which Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft have all invested.

The endgame for tech companies is for consumers to rely on voice-recognition software wherever they go, said Geoff Blaber, an analyst with market intelligence firm CCS Insight.

“So whether you’re using your phone, whether you’re in the car, whether you’re in the office, whether you’re in the home, you are using their platform to query and search and help you through the day, basically.”

Bob O’Donnell of TECHnalysis Research sees Smart speakers as a step in the ongoing metamorphosis of human-computer interaction.

“In the past we chose to enter into the digital world. Now the digital world is coming out to provide us more context and more information,” he said.

David Watkins of Strategy Analytics has a similar view.

“We’re looking really at a new way of interacting with the internet, a paradigm shift, if you like, away from the old way of touchscreen and mouse-keyboard interface, and I think increasingly we’ll see a lot of interactions with internet coming through voice first and foremost,” he said.

According to Watkins, Strategy Analytics has forecast 62 million Smart speaker units sold in 2022, up from six million sold in 2016 — a forecast that was made before Apple announced the HomePod.

But like any hot new technology, said Watkins, the ultimate popularity of Smart speakers is far from certain.

“There’s been loads of products in the past that have seen this huge hype and excitement around them, and there’s been huge early adoption, for them to fail just a couple of years later.”


Solomon Israel

Solomon Israel is a producer and writer for CBC News, based in Toronto. He’s been on the business news beat since 2011, with stints covering technology, world, and local news. recently, Solomon has been covering issues related to marijuana legalization. He can be reached at solomon.israel@cbc.ca, or on : @sol_israel.

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