wants workers to ask its virtual assistant
to book conference rooms and launch meetings, as the company races against rivals to make the office the next major inroad for voice-recognition devices.
Amazon has built a wide lead in the field with its popular at-home Echo speaker, which launched in late 2014. The company is now counting on its new service, dubbed Alexa for Business and available immediately, to spark a surge in voice computing in the workplace. The online retail giant plans to announce the initiative here Thursday at its annual conference for its Amazon Web Services cloud-computing unit.
Even before Amazon made a push into business, RBC Capital Markets predicted that by 2020, Alexa device installations could reach 128 million. Over that same period, the voice-activated internet could result in more than $10 billion in revenues for Amazon, according to the firm.
Still, it remains to be seen how many companies will want to buy Echo speakers for every conference room, as well as design programs for unproven technology in the workplace. In addition, companies may not want workers talking to devices in crowded offices. As for company secrets, Amazon has said its Echo devices don’t send anything to the cloud until users wake the devices with its name, typically “Alexa.”
The effort to expand Alexa’s reach into the workplace comes as the service faces increased competition from virtual assistants created by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Apple Inc.’s Siri, and Microsoft Corp.’s Cortana. Windows 10 computers, increasingly rolling out into workplaces, include the ability to speak to Cortana and get audio responses, for example.
That competitive pressure, in part, has led Amazon to add hundreds of engineers to the Alexa program and give it hiring preference over other divisions.
The four tech titans are battling for leadership in voice recognition, an area analysts peg as the next major shift in how people interact with technology, be it while shopping at home, driving their cars or running tasks at work.
“Voice as an intelligent user interface is just getting started,” said
an analyst with market-research firm International Data Corp, adding that Amazon’s new offering “opens up the whole field for enterprise uses in addition to consumer.”
Since the introduction of the Echo, Amazon has added new features that make it a better fit for the office, including the ability to make calls and check security-camera feeds. The company hopes to let software developers build it into apps that manage work calendars, find open meeting rooms and order supplies.
New apps, or “skills” in Alexa-speak, will give workers the ability to, for example, dim lights, lower blinds and start a project in a conference room by saying, “Alexa, start the meeting.” Workers will be able to tell a device near a printer to send a notification to refill it with paper.
Some business-software makers are introducing new skills, including SAP SE’s travel and expense management unit, Concur Technologies Inc. With its skill, a worker could say, “Alexa, ask Concur when I need to leave for the airport,” and get a reply based on travel itinerary, location and publicly available traffic information, according to John Dietz, vice president of Concur Labs.
WeWork Cos. developed skills to reserve meeting rooms and adjust temperature and lighting. Workers can manage those tasks with apps—even flipping a switch—but telling Alexa simplifies the process, said Josh Emig, head of product research and development at WeWork.
“For me, I think that the more natural our interfaces become—the more they disappear—the better,” Mr. Emig said.
Write to Jay Greene at Jay.Greene@wsj.com and Laura Stevens at email@example.com
Appeared in the November 30, 2017, print edition as ‘Amazon Wants Alexa To Enter Work Force.’
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