Alexa for Business opens up to third-party device makers

Last year, Amazon announced a new initiative, Alexa for Business, designed to introduce its voice assistant technology and Echo devices into a corporate setting. Today, it’s giving the platform a big upgrade by opening it up to device makers who are building their own solutions that have Alexa built in.

The change came about based on feedback from the existing organizations where Alexa for Business is today being used, Amazon says. The company claims thousands of businesses have added an Amazon Echo alongside their existing office equipment since the program’s debut last year, including companies like Express Trucking, Fender and Propel Insurance, for example.

But it heard from businesses that they want to have Alexa built in to existing devices, to minimize the amount of technology they need to manage and monitor.

The update will allow device makers building with the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) SDK to now create products that can be registered with Alexa for Business, and managed as shared devices across the organization.

The device management capabilities include the ability to configure things like the room designation and location and monitor the device’s health, as well as manage which public and private skills are assigned to the shared devices.

A part of Alexa for Business is the ability for organizations to create their own internal — and practical — skills for a business setting, like voice search for employee directories, Salesforce data or company calendar information.

Amazon also recently launched its own feature for Alexa for Business users that offers the ability for staff to book conference rooms.

Amazon says it’s already working with several brands on integrating Alexa into their own devices, including Plantronics, iHome and BlackBerry. And it’s working with solution providers like Linkplay and Extron, it says. (Citrix has also begun to integrate with the “for Business” platform.)

“We’ve been using Alexa for Business since its launch by pairing Echo devices with existing Polycom equipment,” noted Laura Marx, VP of Alliance Marketing at Plantronics, in a statement about its plans to make equipment that works with Alexa. “Integrating those experiences directly into products like Polycom Trio will take our customer experience to the next level of convenience and ease of use,” she said.

Plantronics provided an early look at the Alexa experience earlier this year, and iHome has an existing device with Alexa built in – the iAVS16. However, it has not yet announced which product will be offered through Alexa for Business.

It’s still too soon to see how well any of Amazon’s business initiatives with Alexa pay off — after all, Echo devices today are often used for consumer-orientated purposes like playing music, getting news and information, setting kitchen timers and making shopping lists. But if Amazon is able to penetrate businesses with Echo speakers and other Alexa-powered business equipment, it could make inroads into a profitable voice market, beyond the smart home.

But not everyone believes Alexa in the workplace is a good idea. Hackers envision how the devices could be used for corporate espionage and hacks, and warn that companies with trade secrets shouldn’t have listening devices set around their offices.

Amazon, however, is plodding ahead. It has even integrated with Microsoft’s Cortana so Alexa can gain access to Cortana’s knowledge of productivity features like calendar management, day at a glance and customer email.

The Alexa for Business capabilities are provided as an extension to the AVS Device SDK, starting with version 1.10, available to download from GitHub.

 

Oracle’s Larry Ellison keeps poking AWS because he has no choice

Larry Ellison gave his Oracle Openworld keynote on Monday and of course he took several shots at AWS. In his view, his company’s cloud products were cheaper, better and faster than AWS, but then what would you expect him to say?

He rolled out a slide with all the facts and figures in case you doubted it. He wrapped it up in a neat little marketing package for the world to see. Oracle has an autonomous self-healing database. AWS? Nope. That much he’s right.

Slide: Oracle

He makes claims that his cloud products are faster and cheaper, claims that are hard to substantiate given how hard it is to nail down any vendor’s cloud prices and speeds. He says they have no disaster recovery, when they do. None of it matters.

This was about showmanship. It was about chest beating and it’s about going after the market leader because frankly, the man has little choice. By now, it’s well documented that Oracle was late to the cloud. Larry Ellison was never a fan and he made it clear over the years, but today as the world shifts to a cloud model, his company has had to move with it.

It hasn’t been an easy transition. It required substantial investment on the part of the company to build its infrastructure to support a cloud model. It took a big change in the way their sales people sell the product. The cloud is based on a subscription model, and it requires more of a partnership approach with customers. Oracle doesn’t exactly have a reputation for playing nicely.

To make matters worse, Oracle’s late start puts it well behind market leader AWS. Hence, Ellison shouting from the rooftops how much better his company’s solutions are and how insecure the competitors are. Synergy Research, which follows the cloud market closely, has pegged Amazon’s cloud market share at around 35 percent. It has Oracle in the single digits in the most recent data from last summer (and the market hasn’t shifted dramatically since it came out with this data).

At the time, Synergy identified the four biggest players as Amazon, Microsoft, Google and IBM with Alibaba coming up fast. Synergy chief analyst John Dinsdale says Oracle is falling behind. “We have seen Oracle losing market share over the last few quarters in IaaS, PaaS and managed private cloud,” he said. “In a market that is growing at 50 percent per year, Microsoft, Google and Alibaba are all gaining market share, while the share of market leader AWS is holding steady,” he added.

To its credit, the company has seen some gains via its SaaS business. “As Oracle works to convert its huge on-premise software client base to SaaS, Oracle grew its share of enterprise SaaS markets in 2016 and 2017. Its market share then held steady in the first half of 2018,” Dinsdale pointed out.

Yet the company stopped breaking out its cloud revenue last June. As I wrote at the time, that isn’t usually a good sign:

That Oracle chose not to break out cloud revenue this quarter can’t be seen as a good sign. To be fair, we haven’t really seen Google break out their cloud revenue either with one exception in February. But when the guys at the top of the market shout about their growth, and the guys further down don’t, you can draw your own conclusions.

Further Oracle has been quite vocal about protesting the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI contract, believing that it has been written to favor Amazon over other vendors, a charge the Pentagon has denied. It hasn’t stopped Oracle from filing protests or even bringing their case directly to the president.

At least Ellison might have had some good news yesterday. CNBC reported that the big Amazon Prime outage in July might have been related to a transition away from Oracle databases that Amazon is currently undertaking. (Amazon’s Werner Vogels strongly denied  that assertion on Twitter.)

Regardless, Oracle finds itself in an unfamiliar position. After years of domination, it is stuck behind in the pack. When you find yourself in such a position, you need to have a strong bark and Ellison is going after AWS hard. As the clear market leader, he has few other options right now.

Incalculable harm to special needs education | Letters

Guardian readers respond to our report on the rise in families desperate for educational support for their children

An increasingly effective framework of support for some of the nation’s most vulnerable children and their families, young people with special educational needs and disabilities, that has shown steady progress since the groundbreaking 1978 Warnock report, has been destroyed by the policies of Michael Gove and George Osborne (Crisis looms for special needs education, 23 October).

As a former local education authority (LEA) senior adviser and higher education lecturer for special educational needs (SEN), I can’t express how angry I feel over the destruction of these services. It is not “looming”; it is a crisis. Fifteen out of every 100 children have these needs, which include a variety of disabilities from the partially sighted and hearing impaired to children with mild and complex learning difficulties. Educational psychology services, speech therapy, home tuition for sick children, teams of highly qualified specialist support teachers and advisers have been reduced to a rump. Specialist integrated units in mainstream schools are closing. Vandalism is too kind a term. For Nadhim Zahawi to parrot cash spending figures in defence adds insult to injury when the evidence of wrecked services is all around. The worry and stress caused to the families of these deserving children denied their right to life-enhancing education is incalculable.
Dr Robin C Richmond
Bromyard, Herefordshire

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