Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Last week, at its AWS re:Invent conference, Amazon introduced Alexa for Business. As the name suggests, the service repurposes the company's popular Echo smart speakers for enterprise environments. This is a major move by Amazon, weaving its artificial assistant into the way people work. Echo and its Alexa artificial intelligence engine are growing up and becoming professionals.
Anyone who has worked in a modern corporate environment can appreciate the "pain points" that Amazon is ostensibly tackling with the new platform. The company's promotional video shows how Echo speakers in an office can be used to carry out admin tasks such as starting and joining conference calls, resolving meeting room booking disputes, ordering paper for an empty printer and locating employees. Alexa appears to be a panacea for the daily woes of white collar workers.
With the new service, Amazon provides tools to corporate IT departments that allow them to simultaneously provision and maintain an army of Echo devices, adding off-the-shelf and customised Alexa skills. The platform supports individual-use smart speakers linked to one worker's account, as well as shared devices that can assist with general requests. Thanks to Amazon's acquisition of Do.com earlier in 2017 and its Chime conferencing service, we expect it to integrate productivity tools for meetings and link those into Google's G Suite, Microsoft Exchange and Office 365, as well as Slack.
If Alexa for Business works as envisioned, it's not hard to picture smart speakers becoming a new kind of standard enterprise hardware, joining laptops and phones as typical office gear, and improving worker efficiency and productivity. It will take an adjustment in employee behaviour and IT department rules for wide adoption, but the use of voice-recognition interfaces is spreading throughout homes and cars and now, as a natural progression, into offices as well.
For Microsoft and Google, Alexa for Business is another sign of Amazon's encroachment into enterprise services. As we've stated several times during the past few years, artificial assistants are settling in to become the next major platform battleground. As the markets for PC and smartphone operating systems have settled, the market for artificial intelligence engines is turning out to be the next area of competitive advantage, with the potential to disrupt consumer and enterprise services.
The question of which artificial assistant performs best is certainly debatable. Google Assistant has a fan club, as does Microsoft's Cortana and Apple's Siri, and others. Nonetheless, Amazon has established Alexa as the market leader with a growing number of users feeling comfortable speaking its language.