The growing rivalry between Amazon and Google in the battle for virtual assistant dominance intensified at this year’s CES in Las Vegas.
While both have a strong claim as front runners – with Amazon arguably leading the charge at this stage – it’s clear that Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are lagging. Case in point: Several major PC makers launched Windows 10 hardware and trumpeted Alexa support as a major selling point. (Cortana will, of course, also be available since it’s built into Windows 10, but it is the arrival of Alexa that was a key selling pitch.
The Windows 10 devices launched this week with Alexa built include HP’s small form-factor Pavilion Wave PC; Acer’s Aspire; Spin, Switch and Swift notebooks; Asus’ 2018 ZenBook and VivoBook laptops; and Lenovo’s Thinkpad X1 Carbon and Yoga devices.
With these laptop and PC launches, Alexa is finding its way into a wider array of devices as virtual assistants gain a foothold in the office.
Alexa has benefited from the slow burning success of Amazon’s Echo smart home speakers, but that was only the start. At last year’s CES, Alexa was showcased in a range of products, from fridges to robotic vacuum cleaners, part of Amazon’s plans to position Alexa as an all-pervasive virtual assistant.
Though Toyota and Lexus plan to install the voice-activated assistant in select vehicles, the launch of PCs with Alexa highlights its move from the consumer world to the enterprise – much as the iPhone in 2007 moved quickly from individual users to become a mainstay of the workforce. (The Alexa for Business launch last year – an arena that would seemingly be a natural home for Microsoft – only underscores Amazon’s plans.)
With 25,000 Alexa skills already available, including a growing list targeted specifically at business users, Amazon is already forging deals with corporate partners. A range of companies, including Salesforce, SAP SuccessFactors, Concur, Ring Central and ServiceNow all plan to integrate their applications with Alexa for Business.
“As we begin 2018, Alexa shows the strongest partner ecosystem – with the most hardware partners and the most skills – and an increasing presence in the office with Alexa for Business,” said Forrester vice president and principal analyst J.P. Gownder.
Business support for Alexa – both at work and in customer-facing spots like hotels – represents a huge opportunity for Amazon, said Gownder. And it has the momentum that other virtual assistants lack currently.
“Cortana hasn't made enough headway to stave off an aggressive, growing Alexa in business contexts at this point,” he said.
Are companies ready for Alexa?
The prospect of virtual assistants in the office is generally being welcomed by senior IT leaders.
“We see virtual assistants as inevitable in the workplace,” said Joel Jacobs, vice president, CIO and CSO at MITRE Corporation in Bedford, Mass. “Home experience will set the expectation for voice interaction, inquiry, and control of other [IoT] devices. I think that soon people will expect that if they can have these capabilities at home, why not the office?”
Tom Cullen, CIO at Driscoll’s, the $3.5 billion supplier of fresh berries, envisioned an Alexa-type device handling user self-service requests – as opposed to logging a traditional help desk ticket for issues such as password changes – or being used to enable a workflow typically dependent on another staff member.
Virtual assistants could also be “leveraged for application support-type requests that a quick answer or direction on where to go for more info could be helpful,” he said.
Tom Anfuso, senior vice president and CIO at National Life Group, said the company, based in Montpelier, Vt., prototyped a simple proof-of-concept Alexa skill for its insurance agents last year.
“We will likely continue working with Alexa in the context of our innovation R&D program this year,” he said. Although there is no firm plan at the moment to go beyond the concept, Anfuso said the company is “generally bullish on the growing Alexa ecosystem.”
IPG Mediabrands, the media arm of New York-based advertising firm Interpublic Group of Companies, is currently exploring Alexa for Business integration in its organization, said Frank Ribitch, senior vice president, technology, for the Americas.
“We have seen the benefits that virtual assistants like Alexa can bring to an individual, now we’re looking to exploit those capabilities to help enable existing conference room technology within our offices,” he said. “In my perfect world, we would be able to walk into a conference room, ask Alexa to start their video conference, and Alexa begins to work her magic.”
Despite numerous advances in video conferencing technology, a video conference call often requires an IT person to be on hand to ensure everything is set up and working properly, he said. “I’d love to be able to remove my staff from these meetings, and have them focusing on other, more pressing issues.”
There are still challenges to overcome, however, with the main one being protection of sensitive data. Said Cullen: “The main drawback [for virtual assistants] is security.
“The reason I don’t have one in my house is that it is always listening and you don’t really know where all of the data is going and what is being done with it,” he said.
Ribitch agreed: “Like many others, we have concerns about a device that’s always on and always listening.
“Over the past several months, our CISO and our Legal/Privacy teams have been drafting an internal policy to address IoT devices. We are taking a multiclass approach with IoT devices to help better define their capabilities, and more importantly, how to secure them on our network while also addressing privacy related concerns. We hope to have the final policies completed later this quarter.”
Joel Jacobs at MITRE Corp. also questioned where data created in virtual assistant interactions would reside. “For example, if the voice interpretation is ‘in the cloud,’ does that mean that the voice track and transcription is being stored by the service provider? If so, how can they be used?”
The inherent challenges facing the introduction of voice-activated smart assistants in some ways mirrors the influx of smartphones in work environments over the past decade. That revolution forced IT admins to deal with new data security headaches brought about by consumer devices showing up on corporate networks – and eventually led to the arrival of BYOD policies, along with an entirely new ecosystem devoting to managing devices and networks.