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Amazon Alexa features warrant enterprise use -- eventually

Amazon Alexa, the voice interface that powers Amazon Echo, has security and management limitations that hinder its enterprise growth. But the future still looks bright.

The Amazon Alexa voice user interface creates a variety of new use cases for internet of things devices. Enterprises use Amazon Alexa features in conjunction with AWS infrastructure to simplify developing voice capabilities for devices such as speakers, intercoms and refrigerators. Alexa also gives consumers options to control lights, temperature and security within homes and offices. But Amazon Alexa features are limited when it comes to security, management and application delivery, halting widespread enterprise adoption and implementation.

Still, some early adopters are building proofs of concept with Alexa that use internet-of-things (IoT) tags to manage conference rooms, control interactions with lab equipment and improve healthcare workflows. In the long term, a wide variety of enterprise use cases will develop, owing to the flexibility of voice user interfaces.

Extending the AWS ecosystem

There are several popular voice and conversational ecosystems coming to market, including Apple's Siri and HomeKit, Google Assistant and Google Home, as well as Microsoft Cortana. And Amazon has placed a significant bet on Alexa as the future of conversational interfaces with heavy venture funding and backing of more than 1,000 developers.

Touch-free voice interaction could dramatically improve business processes in the healthcare industry.

Amazon is empowering IT professionals to develop voice apps using the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), which makes it easy to develop voice commands that work with any web service or AWS Lambda functions for specific tasks. Developers can use ASK to query software as a service, drive business processes or simplify the control of devices in the office.

The Amazon Alexa Voice Service enables enterprise device makers to add new input capabilities to office equipment, such as conferencing systems, as well as kiosks and medical facilities that could benefit from touch-free control. These capabilities come with tight integration into the AWS ecosystem.

Promising early examples

Touch-free voice interaction could dramatically improve business processes in the healthcare industry. The Boston Children's hospital implemented an Alexa skill called KidsMD, which allows parents to query health symptoms. Amazon Alexa features could also enable patients with mobility or vision challenges to obtain information or control their environments with their voices. IoT-enabled tags provide some level of context and authentication to improve interaction.

The Jet Propulsion Lab has been developing proof concepts to streamline how employees work in the future to design, build, operate and support spacecraft. Some early prototypes include applications for configuring conference rooms, notifications of lab equipment anomalies and even the ability to control rovers using voice commands. Beco Inc., which makes IoT beacons that track people, rooms and equipment, developed a prototype Alexa app that manages corporate conference room reservations and use.

There are a number of use cases that enable workers the ability to gather information or control equipment when their hands are occupied -- which can also come in handy when working in a dangerous environment, including public safety, defense and manufacturing. Voice interfaces would give workers hands-free access to information or equipment controls.

Enterprise limitations

The consumer market has less stringent requirements around orchestration, security, identity and access management, and governance than enterprises do. Amazon has been building up abstraction layers to meld Amazon Alexa skills into more sophisticated applications, and there are already over 1,500 skills available. Alexa Custom Skills enable developers to drive virtually any type of process that involves applications or devices. The Smart Home Skill API, another part of the ASK, reduces the coding required to control a wide variety of devices. Alexa Scenes makes it easier to orchestrate the control of a collection of devices with one command. These Amazon Alexa features, however, currently target home use cases.

On the security side, all Amazon Alexa skills are provisioned to a public marketplace. There is not currently a way to create a secure enterprise app store, which are common for enterprise-based mobile apps. There are workarounds, such as giving everyone in the enterprise access to a single developer account, but administrators cannot control rights and privileges for individuals and roles.

Another security issue is that the current crop of Amazon Alexa devices only works with basic consumer oriented Wi-Fi networks. These devices do not support WPA2 security or browser-based login screens that are common in many enterprises.

Apple's iPhone started out focused squarely on consumers, but it did not take long for enterprises to build out infrastructure for smartphone applications and use cases. The voice interface industry is still in its early days, and a similar pattern of enterprise adoption will likely occur more quickly than it did with mobile devices.

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