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Microsoft is gearing up for an assault on the Amazon Echo

harman invoke microsoft windows cortana
harman invoke microsoft windows cortana

(The Harman Invoke is a Microsoft Cortana-powered smart speaker, taking on Amazon Echo and Google Home.Harman)

On Monday morning, Microsoft officially unveiled the Invoke — a smart speaker, like the Amazon Echo, manufactured by Samsung subsidiary Harman, with a price to be disclosed when it officially launches this Fall.

Powered by Microsoft's Cortana virtual assistant, the Invoke works like the Amazon Echo or Google Home. Use your voice to control your music, get simple questions answered, or consult your calendar. It does sport one killer feature: With Skype integration, you'll be able to use the Invoke to call people on their normal telephone numbers, if you have Skype credit.

What's really interesting is the timing. This news comes ahead of the Microsoft Build conference in Seattle next week, where the tech titan is expected to focus in large part on new opportunities for developers to build Cortana into their own apps and hardware.

Meanwhile, Amazon is reinforcing its position as the leader in the burgeoning market for voice assistants: Earlier this month, Amazon unveiled the Echo Look, a camera for the bedroom powered by the Alexa voice assistant. And leaked images suggest that Amazon is planning to release a new Echo with a screen, sooner rather than later.

So the introduction of the Invoke, and the new Cortana skills expected to go with it, opens a new front in the battle between the two Seattle-area tech giants.

Both Amazon and Microsoft missed the boat on the smartphone: The Amazon Fire Phone was a famous flop, while Microsoft's Windows phone business has slowly bled out into almost nothingness, costing both companies hundreds of millions of dollars.

microsoft windows cortana surface pro
microsoft windows cortana surface pro


Now, the rise of the voice assistant presents a new opportunity: A brand-new platform, independent from Google's Android or Apple iOS, where they can try to conquer the market early. And so both companies are betting big on voice as a way forward.

And while Amazon has a large advantage, being the first to the market, Microsoft told Business Insider earlier this year that it has two big edges: Access to Microsoft Office data like your Outlook calendar, and the fact that over 400 million PCs and tablets already run Windows 10, which has Cortana built in.

As for the Amazon Echo Look camera, it's really a bet on tech called "computer vision," basically turning cameras into "eyes" for artificial intelligence systems. Microsoft is betting on that, too, with the HoloLens goggles, which overlay digital images in the real world.

So while Google and, reportedly, Apple have their own smart-speaker plays, for Microsoft and Amazon this is really a big bet on leapfrogging the existing players entirely. Expect to hear more about this as Microsoft Build kicks off this week.

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