Microsoft: Skip the ‘Home Hub’ and make a high-end speaker

A Surface speaker for $100 would be a must-buy for home and office.

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There's a reason Google and Amazon make a high-end speaker with a voice assistant that can control your home. You can buy a few of them and place one in every room. You can speak to the device at any time, because it’s always listening to you. (On the Google Home speaker, you can disable the microphone using a button on the back.)  There’s no screen, no batteries to recharge, no driver updates, and no confusion.

You say “Alexa” or “OK, Google” and you’re in.

For some strange reason, rumors rumbled recently about Microsoft getting in on the game, but they plan to make a Home Hub that works within Cortana on your Windows 10 computer. It makes sense on one level -- Cortana becomes a one-stop voice assistant for dictating a memo, setting reminders, and turning on the lights in your home.

There are quite a few problems with this approach, though.

One is that people don’t use their laptop or desktop in the same places where they might want to control their lights or set the thermostat. Sure, in the living room on a couch, but few of us have a laptop running in every room. A laptop microphone won’t pick up across the room (usually). More importantly, a laptop is for productive work, gaming, maybe research and media streaming -- we don’t use them continually throughout the day. I always lose the lid on my Chromebook when I’m done. I move onto other things.

Just as important, the market has already decided that speakers work better. The Google Home plays music with a rich and loud bass; it is worth using as a speaker only. Every song I’ve played sounds as a good or better than many of the other portable speakers I’ve tested. Kudos to both Amazon and Google for emphasizing music streaming quality. On a laptop, we listen on earbuds or headphones, we connect up to a secondary speaker or even a home receiver, but few of us play music on a laptop directly, although that works much better on the recent Apple MacBook laptops.

It’s not a primary music listening device in the home (or the office). It lacks the immediacy, the audio power, and the quality we normally want for a new album by the Boxer Rebellion or an audiobook. I might talk to my laptop once in awhile -- Cortana is great for setting reminders -- but I don’t think of that voice-acted assistant as something I’d use all day. Part of the issue is the size. The Home speaker sits comfortably on a nightstand, on a kitchen counter (even with pots and pans everywhere) or on my desk. It has a sleek modern look. A laptop or a desktop? Not as much.

What Microsoft needs to make is a Surface speaker. The device should cost about $100 and work with Cortana. Bonus if you can also tap into Microsoft Word and dictate a document, control the lights, your home heating, the garage door openers, and several other connected home devices. The speaker should sound outstanding, something you’d place in every room. It would be a nirvana state for anyone who already uses Outlook and Office, because the speaker could also read incoming emails out loud, allow you to place a Skype call, and listen to the Groove music service.

Will it happen? I’m not sure if Microsoft wants to take on giants like Amazon and Google in the consumer space, but they might try anyway. The Surface speaker could bridge the gap between home life and work life in a way that other products have not attempted. Here’s hoping they decide to turn the Home Hub into a product that fits modern life.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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