Remember the Zune? Probably not, or if you do, you don’t remember it well. It was a portable digital music player launched by Microsoft in 2006 to compete with Apple’s iPod. It tied to Microsoft’s MSN music service in the same way the iPod ties to iTunes.
The Zune was one of Microsoft’s many ungodly kludges. It started life as a bulky, too-expensive, unwieldy contraption that was unpleasant to use and inferior in every way to an iPod. I know because I had one. (That’s the kind of thing one has to do when one covers the Microsoft beat.) And it only got worse from there. For example, there was midnight on December 31, 2008, when countless first-generation Zunes froze and refused to work because their internal clock drivers couldn’t handle the leap year properly. (A day later, the Zune unfroze by itself.) Eventually, in 2011, Microsoft finally discontinued the unloved and unlovable device.
The Zune’s history isn’t that different from a more well-known crash-and-burn Microsoft hardware fiasco — Windows Phone. No need to go into details here about its sad history, and the billions of dollars Microsoft threw away before it finally pulled the plug on developing it.
The Zune and Windows Phone have one major thing in common: Both were hardware products launched in an attempt to catch up with competitors that had already released well-designed products that were selling like gangbusters. And neither of them was better than the products Microsoft hoped they would replace.
And now it’s déjà vu all over again. Microsoft is doing the same thing with Cortana smart speakers, trying to catch up to market leader Amazon’s Alexa-powered line of smart speakers, Google’s Google Home line of smart speakers, and Apple’s HomePod. Although it’s still too early to see which tech giant will dominate the market, so far the results haven’t been good for Microsoft. It looks as if Cortana-powered speakers will suffer the same fate as Microsoft’s other me-too products that had no real reason to exist.
The reviews have been lukewarm at best for the first smart speaker using Cortana, built by Harman Kardon and called the Invoke. Reviewers have pointed out that it’s hard to use it as a shared device and it does a poor job of making phone calls, that it’s difficult to set up and add new “skills” to, and that “Unlike its rivals, Microsoft has not offered users compelling reasons to use Cortana.” The only thing reviewers consistently have liked is the sound of the speaker, which has nothing to do with Cortana (or Microsoft) and everything to do with Harman Kardon. The speaker, which was introduced at a price of $200, has fallen to a “sale” price of $100 — but the sale appears to be a permanent one.
There’s even worse dangers ahead. Third-party developers can add skills (essentially voice applications) to smart speakers, such as exercise apps, games for kids, controls for various parts of a smart home, and much, much more. As of Dec. 15, 2017, Microsoft Cortana had 230 skills, while Amazon’s Alexa had a whopping 25,000. This is one of the issues that led to the demise of Windows Phone — few developers wrote apps for it, while they flocked to iOS and Android. (Microsoft faces the same problem with its Edge browser, which has few add-ins compared to the many thousands for both Chrome and Firefox.) There’s no reason developers will want to create skills for a smart speaker with few users, so don’t expect this to change. And without skills, a smart speaker isn’t so smart — or useful.
There are other problems as well. Back in November, Amazon released Alexa for Business, which integrates with Office 365, G Suite, Salesforce, SAP and many other important business computing platforms. With it, you can schedule meetings, join conference calls, manage to-do lists and reminders, dim lights and open and close blinds in conference rooms, provide inventory levels, order supplies — the list goes on. This should be Cortana’s strong suit, given Microsoft’s inroads in the enterprise. But Alexa got there first. And Cortana can hardly do any of this.
So what to expect from Cortana speakers in the future? The product will follow the trajectory of the Zune and Windows Phone. Microsoft will spend gobs of money on it and make optimistic pronouncements about its future. It will likely limp along for a number of years, a perennial also-ran. And then at some point, Microsoft will quietly stop development on it. It will remain as unloved, unmourned and unused as those other Microsoft hardware failures. The company still clearly hasn’t learned its lesson: Don’t enter big new markets with strong market leaders unless you can offer something better. And Cortana smart speakers, for now and likely the future as well, don’t even come close to being better.