AWS unveils potentially disruptive Alexa for Business

AWS brings its Alexa technology to the office. The one negative for Canadian users is that out of the gate, it's only available in the U.S East region.

Werner Vogel enthused by the announcement of Alexa for Business

LAS VEGAS – The story leaked all over the place at the AWS re:Invent here yesterday, so absolutely nobody here was surprised by the formal announcement. Now, however, the news is official. AWS has announced its Alexa for Business offering.

Werner Vogel, AWS’ CTO, made the announcement in the Thursday keynote at the event.

“Voice is the key natural way of disrupting our systems,” Vogel said. “It will mean that you will build your back end systems around voice. As a result, the next generation of systems will be built with conversational interfaces. If you want to build conversations, we will be your partners in that war. You will be able to build conversational systems that will delight your customers on AWS.”

Alexa for Business is a fully managed service for managing many Echo devices at work, for managing unique skills at work. It also integrates fully with users’ home-based Alexas, so they will be able to get their home-based information on work devices.

“You can now dim the lights, lower the blinds – all these things are available in the workplace,” Vogel said.  “The Wynn resort [down the street in Las Vegas from the MGM Grand where Vogel delivered his keynote] is putting Echos in each and every room in their hotel. They will use it to set temperatures, control blinds, control the TV, and do other functionalities. Guests will no longer have to run around with five different remotes.”

End users will be able to access the services through both shared devices and personal devices. With shared devices, they can join meetings in conference rooms, with Alexa turning on the video conferencing equipment, dialing into the conference call, and getting the meeting going. Alexa can also  access custom skills to help with directions around the office, like finding an open conference room, reporting a building equipment problem, or ordering new supplies.

On personal devices, Alexa enables hands free phone calling and messaging, automatically dials into conference calls, and acts as an intelligent assistant, checking calendars, helping schedule meetings, managing to-do lists, and setting reminders. Alexa can also help find information in popular business applications like Salesforce, Concur, or Splunk.

Admins will be able to provision and manage shared devices around the workplace, configure conference room settings, manage users to integrate personal accounts with the business one, assign public and custom-designed skills to the shared devices, and build and share new skills with the Alexa Skills kit and the APIs it makes available.

Vogel announced a flurry of out-of-the-gate integrations with other products.

“Starting today, we now have support for Exchange for all Alexas for Business users, he said. “We also have integrations with RingCentral, Salesforce, Concur, SuccessFactors, Splunk, and Acumatica. You can now have access to all these by voice, and not have to go to Web pages.

“We are also making sure it really works well in conference rooms, and have integrated with Cisco and Polycom and their conferencing systems – so you never have to enter a conference,” Vogel noted.

The long-term impact of Alexa for Business with other office applications is the real wild card here, and is the really potentially disruptive element. Obviously, it competes directly with the other cloud-based digital assistants. It is not realistic, however, to expect that as the digital office expands, the office technologies of the last decade will all remain in place. AWS – as they have reminded us all at this event – loves to add new services. Alexa for Business is likely – no, certain – to add services that compete with many of these other technologies. It will also have traffic funneled to it by all the other elements of the AWS ecosystem, such as the Amazon Translate and Transcribe services, both announced yesterday.

There are no up-front costs for Alexa for Business – for the service itself. You do have to buy the devices, and that’s a separate item. Each device is managed and configured directly through the Alexa for Business console. Shared devices are charged per device, per month, and the subscription fee is the same regardless of the type of device. The monthly cost is $7 per device, and $3 per user.  Enrolled users can use an unlimited number of personal devices.

Canadian users who only access AWS through the Canadian region can hold into their cash for the moment, however. Out of the gate, Alexa for Business is only available in the US East (N. Virginia) region. ChannelBuzz will make Canadian availability information available as soon as we have it.