Tag Archives: Alexa

Microsoft and Amazon sync AI voice assistants Alexa, Cortana

Microsoft and Amazon have launched the first phase of a long-awaited integration between Alexa and Cortana. Although currently targeted at consumers, the partnership could boost adoption eventually of AI voice assistants in the workplace.

The link between the two platforms lets users access some basic Cortana features through Alexa-enabled devices, and vice versa. The public preview works on Amazon Echo speakers, Windows 10 computers, and Harman Kardon Invoke speakers.

Both vendors appear poised to benefit from the partnership, which brings together Amazon Alexa’s large footprint in the consumer market with Microsoft Cortana’s link to office productivity tools, said Werner Goertz, analyst at Gartner.

“Alexa and Cortana can address my needs as a private individual and as a professional knowledge worker,” Goertz said. “That is a very important and winning combination.”

If Microsoft and Amazon decide to pursue a long-term partnership, the deal could pose a challenge to Google and Apple, the two other big players in the market for AI voice assistants.

But Microsoft and Amazon will likely approach the relationship cautiously given that they compete against each other on many fronts, said Jon Arnold, principal analyst of Toronto-based research and analysis firm J Arnold & Associates.

“They will know in time if it’s a good idea or not,” Arnold said. “And if they get the synergies, then they will do more of it. And if not, then they will put the walls back up.”

One possible stumbling block is Alexa for Business, which is excluded from the integration with Cortana launched this week. Released by Amazon in late 2017, the platform connects Echo speakers to enterprise messaging and meetings software.

The absence of a link between Cortana and Alexa for Business — at least for now — suggests their creators are targeting the partnership primarily at consumers, said Juan Gonzalez, analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

“While it may seem that both companies can gain and benefit from this agreement, it’s still not clear who will grab the lion’s share of it,” Gonzalez said. “Will this initiative be the beginning of a long-standing partnership where both companies can combine forces against Apple and Google? Only time will tell.”

Cortana-Alexa integration starts off small  

For now, users need to command their smart devices to open the alternative AI voice assistant software: “Hey Cortana, open Alexa,” or “Alexa, open Cortana.” The two vendors said they were planning for a more seamless link between the two platforms in the future.

Until then, office workers could use an Echo speaker to have Cortana check their morning emails and meetings. At work, they could access Alexa through a Windows 10 work computer to monitor package shipments or control smart home devices.

But many advanced functions, such as music streaming, are not yet available across platforms, as Microsoft and Amazon seek customer feedback during the public trial. The two tech giants first announced plans to sync their AI voice assistants in August 2017, initially promising a paring by the end of last year.

“It’s still very clunky. … In the end game, that should look a little bit different,” Goertz said. “There should be some intelligent mechanism that determines which of the two personal assistants would be the ideal one in any given circumstance to respond to the user’s command.”

Voice assistants present new challenges for call clarity

As consumers, most of us are familiar with voice assistants, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, to help us find information, make calls and order groceries using just our voices. In fact, a survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers found as owners of voice assistants become more familiar with their devices, they are “speaking more and clicking less.” For example:

  • Nearly 90% of respondents use their intelligent voice assistants every day.
  • Nearly 60% use them to accomplish tasks they previously would have done on their smartphones via typing and swiping.
  • Nearly one-quarter of respondents reported they were making more calls to businesses than they previously did. And 35% reported making more calls to friends and family with their virtual assistants.

Ease and convenience are two of the main factors driving the use of voice assistants to place phone calls, as the popularity of virtual assistants continues to rise among consumers and businesses. Consumers are increasingly using virtual assistants to place calls they would have previously done on their smartphones, tablets or landline telephones.

Despite many pundits forecasting voice is dead, it’s actually undergoing a modern renaissance and becoming more critical than ever — especially for businesses.

Voice assistants should initiate clear calls

Al Castle, vice president of product and engineering at FlowrouteAl Castle

Clear and reliable call quality — regardless of the device a caller may be using — is imperative for today’s businesses. Voice assistants can present unique challenges in terms of audio quality. Issues such as background noise or having multiple voices speaking concurrently can affect audio quality.

Being able to deliver reliable connectivity and strong audio quality when a call request is made through a virtual assistant can make or break a customer service interaction or an important sale, which places a direct correlation between call clarity and a company’s bottom line.

While many businesses have worked to make the customer service process faster, efficient and easier, customers usually want to interact with a live human when they have a personalized or complex customer service question. As this Forbes article noted, “While companies are using AI to address customers’ basic questions and requests, like a change of address or checking on a bank balance, it has not gone to the level of replacing people for handling higher-level questions.”

In this scenario, whether a phone-initiated query comes to a business from a landline or a virtual assistant, customers simply want their calls connected flawlessly. The call audio should be clear and strong, and the call shouldn’t drop during the interaction. Actual issue resolution becomes secondary if customers can’t reach a business in the first place, or if they can’t hear clearly during their call.

Ensure high-quality voice connections

In an age of voice assistants, smartphones and other intelligent devices, the role of voice and call quality is regaining its importance for businesses.

In an age of voice assistants, smartphones and other intelligent devices, the role of voice and call quality is regaining its importance for businesses. As consumers and businesses adopt smart speakers, this new technology will emerge as a viable alternative to traditional telephony devices.

Therefore, businesses should work closely with their communication service providers to ensure a clear, reliable and high-quality voice connection, regardless of the devices used today and in the future, as technology companies continue to innovate and offer new advancements for call connectivity.

Al Castle is vice president of product and engineering at Flowroute, a cloud-based communications provider based in Seattle.

Alexa for Hospitality brings AI voice assistant to hotel rooms

Amazon has released a line of Echo smart speakers custom-built for hotel rooms. Alexa for Hospitality is the company’s latest attempt to capitalize on the consumer success of its AI voice assistant to penetrate the enterprise market.

Alexa for Hospitality lets hotel guests place calls, set alarms, play music, order room service, summon housekeeping and control in-room smart devices. In the future, Amazon will allow guests to sign into their personal Alexa accounts on the hotel room devices.

The platform comes with a centralized console, so hotel administrators can remotely control the Echo devices in every room, managing default settings and resetting devices between guests.

Amazon’s platform is a logical first step for bringing AI to the enterprise market, said Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research in Westminster, Mass. But Amazon will eventually need to build a business-grade platform with a more specific set of capabilities.

“Don’t just connect me to the spa, but know that the last four times I stayed there, this is the type of massage I got,” Kerravala said. “That level of personalization comes with having much deeper domain knowledge, and that’s what the consumer products aren’t meant for. They are meant to be broad platforms.”

Consumer smart speakers grow in the enterprise market

AI voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home have grown in popularity among consumers in recent years. The worldwide market for smart speakers is projected to increase at an annual rate of 23.7% per year between now and 2022, according to research released this week by IDC.

As more and more consumers become accustomed to AI voice assistants, tech giants like Amazon are stepping up efforts to sell those devices in the enterprise market. By 2022, for example, London-based research firm IHS Markit forecasts hotels will have installed more than 1.2 million smart speakers in rooms. 

Amazon has already netted one big customer, Marriott International, which will deploy Alexa for Hospitality in a select number of hotels starting this summer. Amazon has invited other hotel chains to apply for an invitation to use the product.

Alexa for Hospitality should complement the software and services provided by traditional networking and telephony providers. But it could make it harder for those vendors to sell some of their newer technologies.

In March, for example, Avaya released a version of its Avaya Vantage desk phone designed for the hospitality industry. Hotels can use the Avaya Breeze Client SDK to customize the capabilities of the Vantage touchscreen device, which also runs an AI voice assistant.

“Alexa for Hospitality and competitors like Avaya’s Vantage … offer identical features to hotel guests,” said Bryan Montany, an analyst at IHS Markit. “As Marriott is the largest hotel chain in the world, Amazon’s partnership with Marriott will definitely put some pressure on these competitors.”

Security concerns a hurdle for Amazon

Alexa for Hospitality customers will have to educate hotel guests about how AI voice assistant devices work, said Irwin Lazar, an analyst at Nemertes Research, based in Mokena, Ill.

Many people may fear that the Alexa app is recording everything it hears in the room. In reality, the Echo devices only begin transmitting information to the Amazon cloud when activated by a wake word, such as “Alexa.”

Amazon faced similar concerns from enterprise IT buyers when it rolled out Alexa for Business last year. That platform connects to enterprise messaging and meeting software, letting users place calls and pull information with voice commands. 

Businesses have expressed trepidation about the fact that Amazon processes the data from its devices in the cloud. In contrast, the IBM Watson Assistant — a toolkit for building AI virtual assistants for the enterprise — gives business more control over their data.

“I’m not sure that the general population, at this point, is going to be excited about having an Amazon device potentially listening to them while they are in hotel rooms,” Lazar said.