Cortana to mix up the smart speaker market

The smart speaker market is set to hot up with all the major players to be in competition in the near future. Amazon's dominance with their Echo device, after gaining a substantial head start, continues fairly unchallenged despite the recent entry of the Google Home device. While I fully expect Home to rapidly gain market share, Apple is also making noises about entering the segment, and Amazon isn't standing still having recently teased a new model with a touch screen. It's easy to overlook Microsoft's Cortana as a player, having lagged Google and Apple in bringing an AI assistant to market initially. 

Despite that, Microsoft announced a smart speaker collaboration with Harmon Kardon in 2016 with a teaser video. Until now, though, details have been thin on the ground. Speculation is rife, naturally, especially as to when we will see this thing. Mehdi Hassan of MSPowerUser reports a possible Build 2017 reveal.

How this is of interest in the IoT space may come back to Microsoft's larger plans to get windows into such devices...with Cortana. PC World covered this move last year, and the addition of a smart speaker to tie such devices together would seem a smart move, indeed this would appear to be Apple's play to extend the usability of HomeKit as well.


In terms of functionality, Microsoft has suggested the usual expectations; playing music from a variety of streaming services and acting as a digital assistant as it already does on Windows 10 devices. What's more interesting is the public preview of the 'skills' capabilities being planned. 

A skill is a construct that allows Cortana to do more. As a developer, you build skills which integrate your services, bots, Universal Windows apps, Android apps, and websites with Cortana so that users can use your capabilities to complete tasks and get things done.
— Microsoft

This framework would appear to follow a similar formula to Amazon's Echo skills, with a specific invocation phrase required to trigger specific tasks. Although the Microsoft approach takes advantage of contextual user knowledge (assuming you allow Cortana to have the necessary access) to improve the capabilities of skills, which I would assume enables smarts over and above what Amazon can offer (since they don't have the potential richness of user information to leverage), this would be matched by Google's ability to do the same. Google Home also appears to have more flexible phrasing, in that it is able to interpret spoken commands in context without needing a specific invocation phrase. The draft skills preview doesn't suggest this level of flexibility at the moment.

We'll have to wait to see the actual results of this collaboration, but the extra competition can only be good for pushing better interaction. Unfortunately, if Microsoft goes down a proprietary device route, we're going to end up with another platform option to content with when making our device choices.