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AWS Gets Serious About Cloud Communications

This week at Enterprise Connect, cloud pioneer Amazon Web Services announced a number of updates to its Connect contact center and Chime UC products -- big steps forward in showing the company has gotten out of experimental mode and jumped into communications with both feet.


Connecting the Dots With AI

For starters, AWS has added a number of artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to Connect that revolve around speech analytics. The new capabilities utilize AWS AI services to provide real-time insights that help agents and supervisors understand what customers want, speed problem resolution, and improve overall experience.

The new AI capabilities include:

  • Amazon Transcribe -- uses speech recognition to create high-quality, text-based transcripts of every interaction in real time
  • Amazon Comprehend -- analyzes interactions, detects caller sentiment, looks for keywords and phrases in agent-customer conversations to auto-trigger searches of CRM, knowledge base, and other systems for providing real-time recommendations to the agent
  • Amazon Translate -- translates the conversation into an agent’s preferred language. This is particularly helpful when agents who support customers in multiple languages aren’t speaking in their native tongues

Rather than selling “cloud is cheaper,” AWS is trying to catch the wave of contact centers moving to the cloud by providing unique capabilities that can only be enabled by the unlimited storage and compute capacity of its public cloud infrastructure. The low-hanging fruit here is AI.

What’s new isn’t so much the Transcribe, Comprehend, and Translate capabilities, as Connect customers could have built these by using the AWS AI toolset. However, most companies don’t have the technical chops to build services like this from basic building blocks. Think of the new services as packaged solutions that bring all of the necessary pieces together. In addition, the AI models for speech-to-text, language translation, and keyword spotting come pre-trained, so customers can use the features now instead of having to spend months teaching the AI.

The self-service nature of Amazon Connect isn’t for everyone, but the company does have a number of impressive lighthouse accounts, such as Capital One, Rackspace, and Intuit. The more “out of the box” features AWS can bring, the broader the appeal. The industry is early in the cycle of cloud contact center, and the company’s unique go-to-market model certainly makes it one of the most interesting vendors to watch.

These new features should help AWS raise the visibility of its AI capabilities in the area of communications. This is something it has needed to do, especially in comparison to Google.

At its Next conference last July, Google showed off its Duplex AI-powered voice assistant and a number of other communications-related AI capabilities. Since then, there has been a tremendous amount of media attention paid to Google’s AI toolkit. The fact is AWS can go toe to toe with Google in AI, but for some reason, the communications industry has given Google more attention. One proof point of AWS’s strength in AI is that 85% of TensorFlow, open-source machine learning, runs in the AWS cloud, giving it a huge lead over the field. Demonstrating these capabilities at EC can help AWS close the perception gap.


Calls Are Chiming

The Amazon Chime updates revolve around broader voice capabilities. Chime already has rich chat, meetings, and collaboration features. Now AWS is adding two new features. The first is business calling capabilities that enable users to place and receive calls and text messages in more than 100 countries directly from the Chime desktop application, mobile client, or Web interface. Callers can use the integrated keypad or click or tap to call on a Chime contact. Incoming calls will ring wherever a user is logged in, so if a worker has the desktop app and mobile client logged in, it will simultaneously ring on both devices. The addition of native calling puts AWS in the competitive crosshairs of all the UCaaS vendors.

In addition, the company is trying to disrupt the market by changing the pricing model. Instead of pre-paying per user, businesses only pay for the minutes used. Administrators can provision as many phone numbers as they need to but only pay for calls made. If a worker makes no calls on a number in a particular month, the business isn’t charged. There are no minimum fees or long-term contracts.

The second new feature is the Amazon Chime Voice Connector, which enables voice calls to be carried over the Internet with elastic scaling capabilities. Voice Connector lets businesses make and receive calls from their phone systems and then use AWS Direct Connect or the Internet as transport to more than 100 countries. The feature uses SIP to connect the phone system to the PSTN, simplifying administration and eliminating many of the fixed network costs.


Alexa in the Meeting Room

In addition to the Connect and Chime updates, AWS announced new meeting room capabilities for Alexa for Business. AWS has made significant strides in bringing Alexa for Business into the meeting room through partner integrations. For example, Polycom, Cisco, and Crestron customers can start meetings by uttering the phrase, “Alexa, start the meeting.”

This week AWS introduced Alexa integration into the Trio conference phone from Poly, as the newly rebranded Plantronics-Polycom merged company is now known. Currently, if a Poly customer wants to use Alexa in a meeting room, it requires an Amazon Echo Dot. Now, with a firmware update, the Trio will have Alexa built into it -- meaning no additional equipment is needed. The addition of a Dot may not seem like a big deal, but it seems like conference rooms are filled with one-off devices so any kind of rationalization is a good thing.

Lastly, AWS announced a room booking API as part of the Alexa Skills Kit. This enables customers and partners to integrate their room booking systems with Alexa for Business. At launch, AWS announced that the popular Joan and Robin room booking systems providers are using the new API to integrate Alexa into their systems. This creates some cool capabilities that allow Joan or Robin customers to Alexa to find and book rooms, extend meetings, or initiate queries as to who might have a room booked.

AWS has danced around the areas of cloud communications for a few years but many, myself included, have wonder if it was serious about this industry or if it was just tossing spaghetti at a wall to see if it would stick. These updates aren’t going to vault AWS to the top of the UCaaS and CCaaS leaderboard overnight, but they are important as they’ll broaden the addressable market of companies that might want to take a look at these offerings.

Visit AWS at booth 2106 on the Enterprise Connect Expo floor, and watch the AWS keynote in person on Tuesday, March 19, at 11:30 a.m. in the Oseola ballroom or by livestream here.