Amazon may have got the smart speaker ball rolling with its Echo, but competitors are starting to come thick and fast. Google has the (excellent) Google Home, and now Microsoft has teamed up with Harman Kardon to put Cortana in the home with the Invoke. Not only will the speaker offer 360-degree sound, it'll be able to control your smart home and make Skype calls.
On the surface, the Invoke looks similar to the Amazon Echo. It's a tall, cylindrical speaker with a glowing blue light on top, available in inoffensive black or silver. Inside, there's a seven-microphone array to pick up voice commands from a distance, just like the Echo (the Google Home only has two).
Cortana's skill set also plays by the same rules as its rivals. Like Google Assistant and Alexa, Microsoft's virtual helper will play music, manage calendars, set reminders and deliver the news headlines when prompted. There's no word on whether the system will work with Spotify or Pandora initially, but expect the range of compatible apps to grow rapidly after launch either way. Microsoft says the speaker will work as a smart home controller and can also be used to make Skype calls, something its rivals can't offer.
Where the Invoke is really designed to stand out is in sound quality. Harman Kardon might be getting into the smart home game, but it's an audio company at its core, and the Invoke has been designed to reflect that. Unlike the Amazon Echo, which has a single tweeter and woofer, the Invoke has three of each. That should make for sound quality more in line with a premium, high-end speaker than its competitors.
Beside sound quality, what does the Invoke offer that its rivals can't? Microsoft and Harman Kardon are both big names, and that might be enough to sway prospective buyers on the hunt for a home assistant. But we can also see people being swayed by Cortana, and the fact it's woven into Outlook and other Microsoft applications. For businesses and people deeply integrated in the Microsoft ecosystem, that could play a major part in their purchase decision.
Microsoft and Harman Kardon are yet to release pricing information for the speaker, which launches in the US fall. But you can expect it to slip in around US$200, occupying the same sort of space as the Echo and Google Home.