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Alexa for Business sounds promising, but security a concern

Amazon's enterprise virtual assistant connects Echo devices and voice commands to conference rooms and business applications as the service looks to ease meeting complexities.

Virtual assistant technology, popular in the consumer world, is migrating toward businesses with the hopes of enhancing...

employee productivity and collaboration. Organizations could capitalize on the familiarity of home-based virtual assistants, such as Siri and Alexa, to boost productivity in the office and launch meetings quicker.

Last week, Amazon announced Alexa for Business, a virtual assistant that connects Amazon Echo devices to the enterprise. Alexa for Business allows organizations to equip conference rooms with Echo devices that can turn on video conferencing equipment and dial into a conference via voice commands.

"Virtual assistants, such as Alexa, greatly enhance the user experience and reduce the complexity in joining meetings," Frost & Sullivan analyst Vaishno Srinivasan said.

Personal Echo devices connected to the Alexa for Business platform can also be used for hands-free calling and messaging, scheduling meetings, managing to-do lists and finding information on business apps, such as Salesforce and Concur.

Overcoming privacy and security hurdles

Before enterprise virtual assistants like Alexa for Business can see widespread adoption, they must overcome security concerns.

"Amazon and other providers will have to do some evangelizing to demonstrate to CIOs and IT leaders that what they're doing is not going to compromise any security," Gartner analyst Werner Goertz said.

Amazon is well-positioned to grab this opportunity much ahead of Microsoft Cortana, Google Assistant and Apple's Siri.
Vaishno Srinivasananalyst, Frost & Sullivan

Srinivasan said organizations may have concerns about Alexa for Business collecting data and sharing it in a cloud environment. Amazon has started to address these concerns, particularly when connecting personal Alexa accounts and home Echo devices to a business account.

Goertz said accounts are sandboxed, so users' personal information will not be visible to the organization. The connected accounts must also comply with enterprise authentication standards. The platform also includes administrative controls that offer shared device provisioning and management capabilities, as well as user and skills management.

Another key challenge is ensuring a virtual assistant device, like the Amazon Echo, responds to a user with information that is highly relevant and contextual, Srinivasan said.

"These devices have to be trained to enhance its intelligence to deliver context-sensitive and customized user experience," she said.

Integrating with enterprise IT systems

End-user spending on virtual assistant devices is expected to reach $3.5 billion by 2021, up from $720 million in 2016, according to Gartner. Enterprise adoption is expected to ramp up by 2019.

Goertz said Amazon had to do a lot of work "under the hood" to enable the integrations with business apps and vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco, Polycom and BlueJeans. The deep integrations with enterprise IT systems is required to enable future capabilities, such as dictating and sending emails from an Echo device, he said.

Srinivasan said Alexa for Business can extend beyond conference rooms through APIs provided by Amazon's Alexa Skills Kit for developers.

"Thousands of developers utilize these APIs and have created 'skills' that enable automation and increase efficiency within enterprises," she said.

Taking use cases beyond productivity tools

While enterprise virtual assistants could be deployed in any type of company looking to boost productivity, Alexa for Business has already seen deployments in industries such as hospitality.

Wynn Las Vegas is equipping its rooms with Amazon Echo devices, which are managed with Alexa for Business, Goertz said. Guests of the hotel chain can use voice commands, called skills, to turn on the lights, close the blinds or order room service.

Another industry that could see adoption of virtual assistants is healthcare. Currently, Alexa for Business supports audio-only devices. But the platform could potentially support devices with a camera and display that could add video conferencing and telemedicine capabilities, Goertz said.

Alexa for Business also has the potential to disrupt the huddle room market by turning Echo devices into stand-alone conference phones, Srinivasan said.

Amazon Echo prices range from $50 to $200, and the most recent generation of devices offers improved audio quality. The built-in virtual assistant with Alexa for Business and developer ecosystem fills a gap that exists in the conference phone market, she wrote in a blog post.

"Amazon is well-positioned to grab this opportunity much ahead of Microsoft Cortana, Google Assistant and Apple's Siri," she said.

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