Company / division: Harman Kardon
Samsung held a press conference for Korean media today to promote the Note8 smartphone it recently launched and in the process made several announcements. It said that it saw 650k preorders for the Note8, which is strong by Note standards but highlights what a marginal phone the Note is in the grand scheme of things relative to a device like the iPhone or Samsung’s own Galaxy S line. It also said it plans to introduce a bendable smartphone – ostensibly under the Note brand – next year, though the timing is up in the air, and reiterated plans for a Harman Kardon-branded smart voice speaker. None of this is likely to have made much of a dent on a day when Apple dominated consumer tech news, and the Note preorder number is likely the biggest announcement for today, signaling unsurprisingly healthy sales for a device launched into a market with significant pent-up demand after last year’s Note7 fiasco.
Back in December, Microsoft announced its equivalent of Amazon’s Alexa platform for third parties in the form of its Cortana Skills Kit and Cortana Devices SDK. A week later, Harman Kardon announced its was working on a speaker that would feature Cortana, and said it would launch in 2017. Five months later, the two companies have provided a name (Invoke), pictures, and some capabilities for the device, but there’s still no specific launch date (beyond “Fall 2017”) or pricing. On paper, the Invoke looks a lot like Echo in both its design and its capabilities (it even has an Echo-like 7-mic array), and the main difference is that it will do Skype voice calls, which is something that’s been rumored for both Echo and Google Home but isn’t yet supported by either. One advantage Harman would have over Amazon or Google in this space is that it’s a speaker maker, so it may well have better audio quality in its version than those companies have in theirs, something that’s been a shortcoming in this category so far. And of course, it’s interesting given Samsung’s ownership of Harman Kardon that this speaker is running neither of the assistants Samsung itself supports – its own new Bixby assistant or the Google Assistant – though this partnership obviously began before the Samsung acquisition closed. Pricing is an interesting question: whereas Google and Amazon both have broader ecosystems which benefit from such a device and therefore justify subsidizing or selling it at cost, Harman obviously needs to make money on it, so it may end up being priced higher (as Apple’s version likely will be too). Lastly, we might see other ecosystem devices using Cortana announced at Microsoft’s Build developer conference this week.