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Alexa for Business: Amazon embarks on voice-activated workplace productivity push

Amazon has released an enterprise-focused version of its voice assistant technology, Alexa, to help boost employee and workplace productivity.

The Alexa for Business service made its debut at the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Re:Invent partner and user conference in Las Vegas, during a keynote overseen by Amazon.com CTO, Werner Vogels, who talked at length about how voice-activated services have revolutionised people’s home lives.

So much so, Alexa-enabled devices emerged as the top-selling product across all categories on Amazon.com during the 2016 Christmas shopping period, with nine times the number sold compared with the 2015 holiday season.

“One area that Alexa has been strong at is in home automation. When I walk into my house and I have to flip a light switch, I get annoyed,” he said.

“I want to be driving home in my car, and say, ‘Hey Alexa: Open the garage door, turn on the porch lights, set the thermostat to 20 degrees, and start playing the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’, and that’s what you want to do.

“You no longer want to go around the room, flip all the switches and get all these lights on. And once you’re used to this more natural way of interacting with your environment, you will not come back,” he said.

Amazon has now turned its attention to replicating this effect by putting Alexa in the workplace, with Vogels believing the technology has the potential to make it easy to manage the office environment, while making day-to-day work tasks more efficient too.

“We’ve been thinking if voice is the natural way to interact in your home and home automation, why don’t we build something you can use at work as well,” he added.

In terms of use cases, businesses could let employees access Alexa for Business through communal Echo devices, with Vogels citing this type of setup as particularly useful to facilitate conference calls, book meeting rooms, report IT issues or order new office supplies.

“If you’ve ever tried to connect your laptop to a presenting device you have or find the printer, it’s a nightmare. This is why meetings always start 10 minutes late. You have to connect your laptop and dial into the conference system,” he said.

“One of the first places we’ve been working on is making sure Alexa works really well in conference rooms… so you no longer ever have to type in a conference ID. You just say, ‘Hey, Alexa: Start the meeting’.”

Employees could also use Alexa for Business on their own personal devices to make calls, manage their calendars, run to-do lists, set reminders, and locate information stored in third-party corporate applications, such as Salesforce, Concur or Splunk, and Microsoft Exchange, for example.

Existing Alexa users will also be given the option to pair up their private accounts with their organisation’s Alexa for Business ones, so they can continue to make use of any custom skills they use at home while at work, said Vogels.

Organisations will also have access to specific Alexa for Business application programming interfaces (APIs), so they can create their own workplace-specific skills that will not need to be published in the public Alexa Skills Store.

Alexa for Business is one of 70 new products and services the Amazon has debuted this week during Re:Invent, which has seen it bulk out its portfolio of database, machine learning and container technologies, specifically.

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