Why the Amazon Echo Means Business

NEWS ANALYSIS: Amazon is reportedly gearing up to bring its Echo virtual assistant appliance, code-named Fox, to the workplace.

Download the authoritative guide: Big Data: Mining Data for Revenue

Amazon Echo virtual assistant

Amazon is working on a new Echo virtual assistant appliance.

The product, code-named Fox, is reportedly about the size of a can of coke and can run on batteries. It's also cheaper than the current $179.99 Amazon Echo (pictured). The Fox version sits on its side rather than standing straight up and responds to commands only when you press a button. Commenters have focused on the size, price and "portability" (battery power), but I think the most interesting aspect of the device is that it's limited to close-up use. Fox is to the Echo what a tablet is to a TV. It's the "right there" experience rather than the "over there" experience.

My Amazon Echo sits on the refrigerator in the far corner of the kitchen. I can use it from the bedroom down the hall—by yelling. The large, loud speaker can reach me, and my large, loud voice can reach Alexa (the cloud-based virtual assistant that lives in the Echo).

The "normal" (non-yelling) range of the Amazon Echo is about 25 feet. I'm guessing the range of the Fox version will be somewhere around 2 to 3 feet.

That makes the Fox Echo great for the bedroom side table and the home-office desk, but not the bathroom. (I'll tell you why below.)

Most of all, the short-range Fox will be very well suited for the office. That's right. Amazon Echo for work.

Apps Determine Locations

The Amazon Echo is way ahead of Apple's Siri, Google Now, Microsoft's Cortana and other virtual assistants, not only because it's an appliance, rather than a slow and hard-to-reach smartphone or desktop app, but also because it's more open to app developers.

And, yes, Google has a Google Now API, but Google is taking an ultra-conservative approach and limiting access to a few dozen developers.

Amazon has thrown the door wide open. That's why, today, I can ask Alexa how much gas is in my car (via an automatic integration), listen to TV shows, radio stations and police scanners live (via a Tunein integration), use Alexa as a personal trainer (via a 7-Minute Workout integration) and turn on the lights (via a WeMo integration).

As with the iPhone, which didn't introduce but did legitimize the app store concept, the Amazon Echo and Alexa platform will be taken into unexpected places and also popularized further by apps.

For example, the Fox Echo product can easily be transformed into a business tool for executives by the addition of a few key apps. Alexa could do all the traditional stuff secretaries used to do: take dictation, look up information, tell you about incoming calls and more. Alexa could read your important emails and enable you to reply by voice.

In fact, pressing a button on the desk is how executives interacted with their human secretaries for decades in the mid-20th century. As in (press button) "Alexa: Hold my calls."

Alexa can already interact with your Google Calendar, but with better integration with more calendar platforms, Alexa could arrange business lunches and meetings with others, and generally function as the sole interface to your business schedule.

All that is fairly obvious. The real opportunity is in the realm of in-house applications or, more likely, Alexa interfaces to existing in-house applications, especially big data and even regular-size data applications. The ability to simply ask Alexa about sales metrics or customer retention numbers or make inventory queries transforms the data into something far more appealing to access for managers and executives.