“Alexa, start my meeting.” “Alexa, read Priority Inbox.” “Alexa, ask my boss for a raise.”
Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa is starting to invade the workplace. You can already ask Alexa some basic business-related questions and make requests — though, regrettably, petitioning on your behalf for a raise isn’t among them (yet).
But more Alexa skills for businesses are on the way, fueled by Amazon’s November 2017 announcement of Alexa for Business. The open API development platform, which runs on Amazon Web Services, provides the tools and controls “administrators need to deploy and manage shared Alexa devices, skills, and users at scale,” according to Amazon Alexa for Business FAQ.
Here’s a quick overview of what you need to know about Alexa and other virtual assistants for business.
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1. Amazon Echo Dominates the Consumer Smart Speaker Market
Amazon announced its first-gen Echo smart speaker, featuring Alexa, in 2014, ahead of Google Home website (released in 2016, featuring Google Assistant) and Apple’s just-now-emerging, Siri-enabled Apple's HomePod website.
Thanks to its head start, Echo has 69% of the U.S. smart speaker market, according to January 2018 research results from Edison Research and NPR and as reported by Voicebot.ai website. Google Home has 25%. (Apple’s HomePod wasn’t available at the time of the research.)
2. Alexa’s Dominance in the Home Could Lead to Dominance in the Workplace
Ten years ago, the first-gen iPhone inadvertently launched the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomenon. Could Echo’s popularity do the same in 2018, stirring consumers to bring Alexa to the office or, at a minimum, be comfortable using Alexa at work?
While 38% of professionals said they’ve used a chatbot or digital assistant like Alexa for personal reasons, only 11% have done so in their professional lives, according to the 2017 Enterprise Technology End-User Sentiment Survey from Unit4, which provides enterprise systems for services organizations. However, those who’ve used a chatbot or digital assistant in their personal lives are more than 1.5 times likelier to trust one in handling a work-related task, the survey found.
Separately, 62% of organizations expect virtual assistants to have a place in their companies within the next two years, according to a recent study from Dimension Data report on the digital workplace, a division of telecommunications service provider The NTT Group.
Given Alexa’s current dominance among consumers, then, it’s probable that Alexa will be a popular choice for virtual assistance in the workplace — at least in the beginning.
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3. Alexa is Coming to Windows PCs
This spring, Amazon is releasing an Alexa Windows 10 app. And HP, Asus, Acer, and Lenovo will release computers this year with Intel’s Smart Sound technology for far-field voice recognition, to better support virtual assistant voice commands for Alexa or Microsoft’s competing assistant, Cortana.
That initiative is separate from one that Microsoft and Amazon announced in August 2017 new AI collaboration effort, in which the two companies promised that Alexa would be able to talk to Cortana and vice versa, by the end of 2017. Though this collaboration has yet to bear fruit, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently said the company is still onboard with Alexa on Windows.
4. Alexa is Coming to Your Meeting Room
Many business users are keen on the efficiencies, convenience, and other benefits that voice assistants can provide, says James Kirby, an analyst covering professional displays for research firm Futuresource Consulting website.
Projectors in conference rooms are a case in point, he says. At CES 2018, for example, Optoma claimed to offer the first Alexa-enabled home theater projector, so it’s only a matter of time before similar projectors appear en masse in meeting rooms.
The invasion of virtual assistants in meeting rooms has already begun. In February 2017, IBM and Ricoh jointly announced interactive whiteboards that Ricoh’s interactive whiteboards will integrate with IBM’s Watson intelligence and voice technologies.
In November 2017, Cisco launched Cisco Spark Assistant website, which it says is “the world’s first enterprise-ready voice assistant specifically designed for meetings.” Also that month, Crestron, which makes automation and control systems for homes and offices, introduced an Alexa skill developed with Alexa for Business. Saying “Alexa, start my meeting” will trigger a new web conference or bring up a presentation for display in a conference room, among other actions.
5. Large — and Small — Businesses are Developing Alexa Skills
A variety of businesses are already developing Alexa skills to augment their products and services for customers and/or to enhance their operations.
For example, CapitalOne is doing both. The financial services company has been offering an Alexa skill enabling customers to handle tasks such as finding out their balance. CapitalOne has also built an Alexa skill for internal-use only to help its IT team check the status of its data systems, among other things.
Smaller, more specialized companies are getting into the Alexa act, too. Stone Temple Consulting website, a digital marketing agency, built an Alexa skill and a Google Assistant action explained that enables you to ask digital marketing questions, such as “Alexa, ask Stone Temple how to make my site mobile friendly,” or “Alexa, ask Stone Temple what content marketing is.”
Stone Temple Consulting built its Alexa skill and Google Assistant action because “the emergence of personal assistants over the next two years is going to be huge,” says Eric Enge, the company’s CEO. “We also have clients starting to develop these types of apps. These are people who are seeing the same things we are, that voice search is coming on faster than people think.”
Enge adds that in just two years, we’ll probably spend as much, if not more, time interacting with screenless devices rather than devices with screens, such as laptops and smartphones. His company also recently conducted research on mobile voice usage trends, which shows an uptick in the use of mobile voice search in the office.
Bottom line: “Any business that delivers a digital service today should be designing and prototyping voice-based interfaces for Alexa, Google Assistant, and others,” says Skot Carruth, designer and CEO of Philosophie Group, which provides prototyping, process automation, usability testing and other services.
6. You’ll Need to Get Your Security and Privacy Experts Involved
Not everyone is comfortable being around an always-listening smart speaker. Some worry about their privacy. Others are concerned about the security of Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as smart speakers.
“There are a lot of things to consider with respect to privacy and security,” says Carruth. “Do these devices and services meet the data security requirements for your industry? If you work in professional services, do they comply with confidentiality clauses in client contracts? If you use Alexa skills or Google Assistant actions developed by third parties, do they have different security concerns? Can anything ‘heard’ by an assistant be discoverable evidence in a lawsuit? The extent of these risks is unknown, but that’s one of the costs of adopting new tech. Any companies experimenting with them should do so thoughtfully.”
7. Don’t Count Out Google Assistant, Cortana or Siri
Google Assistant, which lives in Android phones, an iOS app, Google Home smart speakers, and some other devices, represents perhaps the most formidable threat to Alexa’s dominance. For one reason, Google’s artificial intelligence prowess — which is increasingly evident whenever you do a mobile or desktop Google search — has bested Alexa in some research studies. For example, digital marketing firm 360i website found that Google Assistant was 6x more effective at answering queries than Alexa. A Stone Temple Consulting bake-off against google assitant, cortana and Siri between Google Assistant, Cortana, Siri, and Alexa crowned Google Assistant the smartest at answering questions.
As for Microsoft’s assistant, some wags called the recent CES show “Cortana’s funeral.” But Microsoft seems determined to stay in the fight, given the importance of voice input to artificial intelligence and IoT. In February, for example, Microsoft announced the Cortana Intelligence Institute website, a group that will focus on “next-generation capabilities” for Cortana.
Apple’s Siri is already widely used in iPhones, iPads, Apple’s computers, AirPods and now, HomePod. And Siri is continually being improved. But historically, Apple has tended to focus more on consumer products, rather than products built especially for enterprises.
Still, if you discount Apple’s potential, you’ll generally do so at your own peril. Apple is, after all, one of the world’s most valuable brands — right behind Amazon, according to the latest ranking from Brand Finance stury on most valuable brands.