Channel Opportunity Emerging To Bring Amazon's Alexa Voice Interface Into The Enterprise

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Alexa for Business was born at the start of a meeting at Amazon, when after some frustration connecting to a video conference system, someone made the joke: "Alexa, start the meeting."

That got people in the room thinking about the potential to extend the intelligent home assistant to ease the many routine tasks that cause friction in the modern workplace, Collin Davis, general manager for Alexa for Business, told CRN before delivering a keynote Tuesday at the Enterprise Connect conference in Florida.

Amazon's voice-powered service probably would have found its way into the office without that moment of inspiration—allowing developers to take Alexa in new directions, and applying its capabilities to tackling unforeseen problems, was part of Amazon's vision for the product all along.

But delivering a truly enterprise-grade service meant tweaking Alexa into "something that could scale a lot further than consumers required in their homes," Davis told CRN.

[Related: Widespread AWS Outage Silences Alexa; Solution Providers Critical Of AWS Response]

With the rollout of Alexa for Business at the end of last year, Amazon delivered that ability to run at scale and connect to thousands of devices. Through integrations with hardware vendors like Cisco and Polycom, and conference services like BlueJeans, WebEx and Amazon Chime, it also introduced applications to address the conference room scenario, such as integrating calendars, dialing into meetings, connecting to conference providers.

"We built on top of our AWS console all the capabilities that would enable an administrator to deliver, create groups and policies and unlock skills across the organization," Davis said.

Use cases will expand across the enterprise with Amazon's continuing work, and a growing army of third-party developers like the sort that built more than 30,000 solutions for its consumer-oriented cousin that runs on the Echo speaker.

"We've seen potential for so much more," Davis said.

Alexa will soon be used to send emails, report problems, control environments, book conference rooms, and connect home offices to conferences through Echo devices.

Heavyweight partners have already built integrations. Alexa for Business users can ask Concur to check on travel arrangements, or ServiceNow to inform the status of an IT ticket, or Salesforce to update a customer account.

Davis said Amazon now sees "Alexa Everywhere," not only homes and offices, but automobiles, manufacturing facilities, hotels. Hands-free commands and queries can be particularly useful in warehouses and factory floors.

A 'private skills' capability allowing businesses to control by voice existing internal systems is catching on faster than Amazon predicted, Davis said.

That's an especially fruitful area for consulting partners and systems integrators. The AWS channel can build those custom skills to enable unique voice experiences, he said, adding Amazon is in the early stages of working with SIs to deliver Alexa to enterprises.

"In just a few months, our customers have built hundreds of private skills that help voice-enabled employees do everything from getting internal news briefings to asking what time their help desk closes," blogged Amazon CTO Werner Vogels on Monday.

"Voice interfaces are a paradigm shift, and we've worked to remove the heavy lifting associated with integrating Alexa voice capabilities into more devices," Vogels said.

Business users need three things to make voice control a reality.

"The first is a management layer, which is where Alexa for Business plays. Second, you need a set of APIs to integrate with your IT apps and infrastructure, and third is having voice-enabled devices everywhere," Vogels said.

The Alexa Skills Kit gives developers the ability to create voice interfaces for custom apps.

"Voice interfaces will really hit their stride when we begin to see more voice-enabled applications," Vogels said. "There are a number of agencies and SIs that can help with this."

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