Staples is building an Alexa-like button, powered by IBM Watson. It will be targeted at its B2B customers. There are a couple of interesting things here. First, they didn’t choose to use Alexa. For those who haven’t taken the deep dive into the Amazon Alexa platform, there are actually two sides to it: Alexa Sills Kit (ASK) and Alexa Voice Services (AVS). ASK does what one would expect – it’s the framework for developers to build new skills which are available on the Amazon Echo, Dot, etc. So when you say “Alexa, let’s play Jeopardy” the Jeopardy skill is built using Skills Kit. AVS is the other side of the platform. It allows developers to create their own echo-like devices by embedding Alexa into them so they can accept voice commands. So if you want you to be able to say “play jeopardy” with your refrigerator instead of the Echo device, the refrigerator manufacturer doesn’t have to build an entirely new software platform and get developers to build on it, the manufacturer can use AVS and give its users access to any skills available in the skills store. This is somewhat similar to Amazon offering Amazon Web Services (AWS) to any web developer.
So back to the Staples button, their choice to be powered by IBM Watson is also a choice not to be powered by AVS. There is an argument that the voice operating system which wins long-term (Alexa vs. Google Home vs. Siri vs. Viv) will be the one which is available across the most devices (e.g., a speaker in your kitchen, a connected refrigerator, a connected TV) and also the one which has the most apps (called “skills” on Alexa and “actions” in the Google Home). Seeing a retailer such as Staples select IBM Watson over Amazon Alexa or Google Home makes me wonder why they chose it over the others, and makes me think it may not be a foregone conclusion that Alexa wins the voice platform wars despite its early lead.
The second interesting part of this announcement is the B2B focus. Apple was able to infiltrate the enterprise market starting on the consumer side and then making it feasible for people to bring their own devices into the workplace – a bottoms-up approach to enterprise use cases. Amazon already has enterprise relationships, and also has the voice powered devices (echo & dot) that seem to have the greatest install base. But Google has enterprise relationships too, especially with smaller companies using Gmail for business, however the new Google Home device seems squarely aimed at, well, the home. Will they create another device which is targeted to the workplace, or will they take a more AVS-like approach and encourage hardware manufacturers to incorporate their platform instead of Alexa?