Amazon's deal with WeWork to test Alexa in the workplace has been paused, but internal Amazon pilot sees quick adoption 

Key Points
  • Amazon’s partnership with WeWork to test Alexa for Business, its voice assistant technology designed for business users, has been paused, CNBC has learned.
  • Alexa for Business’s quick fade out at WeWork points to the challenges Amazon faces as it tries to take its Alexa voice-assistant beyond its core home consumer market to the massive business software space.
  • But Alexa for Business is proving to be a popular tool among Amazon employees as more than half of the meetings in a pilot program start by talking to Alexa, according to internal data obtained by CNBC.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, founder of space venture Blue Origin and owner of The Washington Post, participates in an event hosted by the Air Force Association September 19, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland.
Alex Wong | Getty Images

Amazon's partnership with WeWork to test Alexa for Business, its voice assistant technology designed for business users, has come to a halt, less than a year after Amazon promoted the co-working space start-up as one of its earliest flagship customers.

The pilot, which made Alexa-powered voice devices available in conference rooms at WeWork's New York headquarters, only lasted for about two months before being paused earlier this year, according to a person familiar with the project. The service was intended to allow WeWork employees to reserve conference rooms or adjust room temperatures by simply talking to the Alexa-powered device.

It's unclear why the partnership was suspended, and whether WeWork will test it again in the future.

Alexa for Business's quick fade out at WeWork points to the challenges Amazon faces as it tries to take its Alexa voice-assistant beyond its core home consumer market to the massive business software space. Early partners of Alexa for Business said it could take at least a few more years before voice technology becomes more widely used in the workplace, as it still needs to earn the trust and recognition of business customers.

"People see voice as a viable interaction method at work," said Ajoy Krishnamoorthy, VP of platform strategy at Acumatica, a business software company that has been an Alexa for Business partner since last year. "But we need to build the confidence in the industry that technology like this can work with the right security — sometimes you have to go slow to go fast."

Acumatica's Alexa-based app, or "skill," hasn't officially launched even after being introduced almost a year ago. Krishnamoorthy said Acumatica has been patient with its official roll out as it's been refining and improving certain features, like security and authorization, based on early customer feedback. Acumatica's Alexa skill is expected to launch publicly early next year.

"It's one thing to have a skill that checks the weather and news, where the data is not as classified," he said. "But when you're dealing with business applications, you've got to have the right set of authorizations built in."

Alexa for Business was introduced at last year's AWS re:Invent conference and could come under the spotlight again at this year's event, which kicked off on Monday.

WeWork declined to comment. Amazon did not return requests for comment.

Popular for scheduling meetings at Amazon

Meanwhile, Amazon is quickly learning how popular Alexa can be among its own employees.

In a pilot program launched earlier this year, Amazon saw more than half of its meetings — 53 percent to be exact — start by talking to the Alexa voice assistant, instead of manually typing in the call-in information on the existing touch panel, according to internal data obtained by CNBC.

In addition, meetings have started in under nine seconds on average, the data show.

The results, which come from June, are based on a pilot program that installed Alexa for Business in 698 conference rooms across 5 different Amazon buildings in Seattle. The program is run by AWS Product Adoptions, a team that tests AWS products internally before deploying them more widely.

The quick adoption of Alexa for Business among Amazon employees shows the huge potential of voice technology in the workplace.

But Amazon could bring that type of broader adoption externally as well, if they were to more aggressively promote and clarify Alexa for Business's positioning as a business tool, as many businesses still remain unaware of Alexa's capabilities at work, according to Joe Kleinschmidt, CEO of Obindo, another early partner of the Alexa for Business program.

For example, Kleinschmidt said that his customers tend to ask much more frequently about Obindo's integration with tools like email and messaging apps compared to its Alexa skill. Obindo, a software that surfaces company information like who's in charge of certain projects with a simple command, works with simple voice queries on Alexa. But when Kleinschmidt shows this feature to customers, a common response is "We didn't even think about using Alexa in the office," he said.

Kleinschmidt said it would help raise awareness of Alexa's potential in the business space if Amazon ran stronger marketing campaigns around Alexa for Business, noting how most ads about Alexa are focused on consumer use cases.

"People's eyes just light up when we show them how they can use Obindo inside of Alexa," he said. "I would love to see Amazon tell more of those stories that really capture people's imaginations."

One Amazon employee, who agreed to speak with CNBC on condition of not being named because he's not authorized to talk about the issue, said Alexa for Business is a convenient tool to start meetings, significantly shortening the time to dial-in all participants. But he also noted that its use case is still mostly limited to basic features, like starting meetings or dimming the room lights.

Kleinschmidt, at Obindo, said that the quick adoption at the most basic level of starting meetings with voice is expected. But given the level of Alexa's sophistication and ability to offer much more intelligent data, Amazon would be "leaving a lot on the table" if it didn't further promote its capabilities, he said.

"This platform is about so much more than making meetings run slightly more efficiently," he said.

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