Hello Alexa, Let’s Join the Meeting

Dec 07, 2017

Yes!!  Alexa for Business is finally here to help enterprise users to join meetings with ease.  The conference phone industry has come a long way in empowering users with several innovations including multiple connectivity options; intuitive user interfaces (UI); stylish form-factors; product quality; varied product features and functionality; and noise/echo cancellation abilities. Of all the innovations, connectivity options and UI, in particular, determine the degree of ease of use in joining conference calls.

Background

The introduction of the industry’s first conference phone dates back to 1992 when Polycom launched the SoundStation – an analog conference phone which used the RJ-11 cable to connect to analog phone systems and featured a hard dialer for users to dial into meetings. Having served as the epitome of a good-quality conference phone, it is no wonder to see the Polycom SoundStation being exhibited in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History today.  

With the onset of migration from TDM to IP phone systems, IP conference phones made inroads in the market. These phones connect to the communication network via a Cat5 Ethernet cable. The UI in IP conference phones has evolved, from hard dialers to color touch displays today, which closely mimic the touch interface of smartphones and tablets.

Another breed of devices called USB conference phones, catering primarily to small meeting spaces or huddle rooms, began to surface in 2006.  These devices enable plug-and-play connectivity through USB dongles and USB cables and act as extended speakers/microphones for PCs and laptops. Typically, USB conference phones feature some hard/soft buttons that assist users in controlling conference calls. Further, with the wide-spread adoption of Bluetooth technology in enterprises, users began to join meetings from their smartphones and tablets by pairing them with BT/NFC-enabled conference phones.

Alexa in Conference Rooms

To further enhance the intuitiveness of audio conference devices, virtual assistants are making their way into meeting rooms. Amazon made its debut in voice-based computing in 2014 through Amazon Echo speakers. Targeted at the consumer space, these Echo devices are powered by Alexa, an intelligent personal assistant engine, which has graciously blended with people’s lifestyle by enabling natural interaction between users and echo devices. On request, Alexa helps users with several queries including weather updates, music streaming, home automation, ordering supplies and powering up smartphones among many others. This has been made possible through the ‘Alexa Skills Kit’ which serves as the backbone for developers to build thousands of ‘Skills’ or capabilities on Alexa-enabled devices. As of early 2017, Amazon has sold over ten million Alexa-enabled devices to consumers worldwide.

Propelled by considerable positive feedback from the consumer community, Amazon took the next step forward to extend Alexa to businesses. At AWS re:invent conference 2017, Amazon launched the Alexa for Business platform, which promises the most user-friendly interface ever in the history of conferences/meetings in the enterprise world. Amazon’s Alexa for Business aims to replace all the preceding UI including dialers, remote controllers, one-touch or single-click in mobile apps and meeting room displays in order to reduce the complexity for users in joining meetings. Currently, the Alexa for Business platform runs on shared enterprise devices such as Amazon Echo Plus, Amazon Echo and Echo Dot (2nd generation).

The artificial intelligence (AI), built into Echo devices, smartens up conference rooms to a great extent.  The Echo can work as a stand-alone audio conferencing device in huddle rooms and is compatible with all the leading software-based video conferencing clients such as Cisco WebEx, Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype for Business, RingCentral and Amazon Chime. In case of large meeting rooms, the Echo device acts as an AV controller providing users with the ability to manage all audio/video technologies and acoustics in the room. Currently, the video and control technologies that Echo complies with are Cisco (Telepresence SX and DX models), Polycom Group series and Crestron model 3 Control systems.  

The primary use cases of Echo devices in conference rooms include:

1)      Join meetings using the pre-populated PSTN numbers provided by the third-party conferencing service provider.

2)      Schedule meetings based on the user’s calendar and resources (rooms) available in the office building.

3)      Customizable user experience (UX): Most important, the UX could be further customized by building certain skills or capabilities within the device through a collection of self-service APIs available as part of the Alexa Skills Kit. These skills enable customizability within enterprises and provide tight integration with business applications.

Other use cases of Echo include setting alerts, notifying the facilities department about issues in conference room and getting directions to conference room among others. The most crucial aspect of the Alexa for Business platform is the Alexa for Business Console which allows users to provision devices, assign skills and centrally manage all networked Echo devices deployed in the enterprise.

Amazon has adopted an AI-as-a-service model with Alexa for Business. In addition to purchasing Echo devices, Amazon charges a monthly subscription fee based on number of shared devices and enrolled users in an enterprise. Shared devices are Alexa devices deployed in conference rooms and open spaces and not linked to a particular user. Enrolled users could integrate their personal Alexa account with Alexa for Business account and extend the skill usage as part of their networked personal and professional Alexa devices. The charge per shared device is $7/month and the charge per enrolled user is $3/month.

Will Alexa for Business lead the AI trend in Conference Rooms?

Amazon has certainly made the right move to embed virtual assistants in conference rooms and align the speech-based UI into workflows.  While Amazon has demonstrated its openness to work with technology vendors and third-party conferencing service providers, the Echo devices could pose a significant threat to audio conferencing endpoints used in huddle rooms today. There are several commendable features in AI-assisted Echo that could position Amazon at an advantage vis-à-vis the participants in the USB audio conferencing endpoints space.  Firstly, the Echo device variants are very attractively priced and are available in the range of $50-$200 depending on the model. Secondly, the upgraded Echo devices launched in 2017 are powered by Dolby audio that delivers crisp vocals and extended bass. Thirdly, the built-in virtual assistant fills up the gap that exists in the USB conference phones available in the market today. In addition, Amazon’s well-established developer ecosystem, that enriches the Alexa Skill base on the consumer side, will continue to enrich the UX on the enterprise side as well. Overall, there is no doubt that virtual assistants would enhance the collaboration experience and infuse it into every workspace and workflow. Amazon is well-positioned to grab this opportunity much ahead of Microsoft Cortana, Google assistant and Apple’s Siri. 


Vaishno Srinivasan


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