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WeWork reportedly halts rollout of Amazon Alexa for Business

WeWork, one of the premier early adopters of Amazon Alexa for Business, has reportedly shelved plans to deploy the AI voice assistant after a two-month pilot.

WeWork has reportedly paused plans to place Amazon Alexa for Business devices in the hundreds of conference rooms it manages around the world. It's a setback for Amazon that underscores the challenges the consumer giant faces as it attempts to bring AI voice assistants into the workplace.

WeWork was among a handful of early partners Amazon highlighted in announcing the enterprise product last year. WeWork said it was piloting Amazon Alexa for Business in its corporate headquarters and hoped to eventually deploy Amazon Echo devices in the 500 offices it rents to businesses around the world.

But the vendor halted its pilot earlier this year after only two months, according to a report by CNBC, which cited an unnamed source. A spokesperson for WeWork declined to comment, and Amazon did not respond to requests for an interview.

WeWork is no longer listed as a customer on the Alexa for Business website -- nor are several other big brands that Amazon once highlighted as early adopters, including NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Mitsui & Co.

Neither of those two organizations immediately responded to requests for comment. However, two other companies dropped from Amazon's customer page, Vonage and BMC Software, confirmed they were still using the product.

Alexa for Business integrates with email, calendar and business applications, letting users start a meeting or file a help desk ticket through voice commands. Amazon also helps customers build custom skills for internal use. However, the technology isn't a priority yet for many businesses, analysts said.

"In our research, we aren't seeing a lot of interest in virtual personal assistants or in using voice control in meeting spaces, primarily because IT leaders we speak with have higher priorities or don't feel that the technology is ready yet," said Irwin Lazar, analyst at Nemertes Research in Mokena, Ill.

Analysts were reluctant to comment on WeWork ending its partnership with Amazon without knowing all the details. Werner Goertz, analyst at Gartner, said the CNBC report contrasted with the positive feedback he had received from other businesses that had started using the product.

"As far as I can tell, deployment, rollout [and] adoption [of Alexa for Business] continues unabated," Goertz said. "And that's why the sentiment of this article is a little bit surprising to me and not congruent with my observations."

Many enterprises have security and privacy concerns about AI voice assistants, worrying the devices may be inadvertently recording confidential conversations. Some businesses are also wary of voice data being processed and stored in the cloud.

"While natural language processing removes some of the barriers to using devices and applications, it brings with it its own set of challenges," said Alan Lepofsky, analyst at Constellation Research in Cupertino, Calif. "For example, ensuring voiceprints match the intended user is critical for security at work."

Amazon has initiatives targeting the fields of hospitality and higher education. Marriott International said it planned to place Amazon Echo hardware in some hotel rooms, and Saint Louis University announced in August that it would install the devices in every student dorm room.

Amazon Alexa for Business faces competition from Microsoft Cortana, Google Assistant and Cisco Webex Assistant. However, those vendors have yet to release a platform for managing an enterprise-wide deployment of their AI voice assistants, as Amazon has done through Alexa for Business. Another product, IBM Watson Assistant, helps businesses build their virtual assistants.

"Having AI-enabled smart speakers in an enterprise has some very exciting productivity benefits, but has to be weighed by the privacy concerns of the employees and the company," said Wayne Kurtzman, analyst at IDC. "The day of the smart speaker will come, sooner than later, but there are hurdles to cross to get there."

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