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IBM Watson Assistant offers flexibility, data privacy

IBM has released a toolkit for building enterprise-grade virtual assistants. The IBM Watson Assistant is highly customizable and lets businesses keep their data private.

IBM is making it easier for enterprises to add intelligent bots to business and collaboration applications and IoT devices with the release of a virtual assistant developer toolkit. The ability to customize the IBM Watson Assistant -- and keep the data that flows through it private -- could boost adoption of virtual assistants in the enterprise market.  

Virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa have gained popularity in the consumer market, but IBM is offering its new product exclusively to businesses. The IBM Watson Assistant will allow enterprises to build virtual assistants for customer service or sales and brand them as their own.

IBM also gives businesses more control over the information that flows through these virtual assistants than do products such as Alexa for Business and Google Assistant. Enterprises can guard competitive insights and sensitive information by running the IBM Watson Assistant in private data centers.

"IBM's approach of adding artificial intelligence to everything will open up the use cases to a broad range of products and services, including unified communications and collaboration," said Juan Manuel González, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

Virtual assistants hold promise for unified communications 

IBM is marketing the Watson Assistant primarily as an instrument for improving customer experiences and reducing contact center costs. The company also released special tools for integrating virtual assistants with vehicles (for navigation and locating nearby destinations) and hotel rooms (for ordering room service and concierge services).

But the IBM product could also be used to add chatbots and AI voice assistants to collaboration apps and meeting room devices. With such integrations, workers could command video conferencing gear to begin a meeting, ask their desk phone to call a co-worker or tell a team collaboration app like Slack to open a recent file.

"I would like to see IBM provide deeper integration of Watson Assistant within their collaboration portfolio, enabling people to chat with their email, calendar, contacts and social networking applications," said Alan Lepofsky, an analyst at Constellation Research.

There are some enterprise AI voice assistants on the market that require less developer expertise. Vendors have tied those assistants to specific devices and applications, such as Cortana, which Microsoft will soon add to Teams, and the Spark Assistant, which Cisco released in beta in November 2017.

The IBM Watson Assistant gives enterprises device flexibility and control over their own data, but many may still prefer prebuilt platforms such as Alexa for Business, which runs on Amazon Echo devices.

Enterprise virtual assistant market in early stages

The release of IBM Watson Assistant underscores the rapid growth of virtual assistant products and services, but that growth may be outpacing market demand, said Irwin Lazar, an analyst at Nemertes Research, based in Mokena, Ill.

End-user spending on AI voice assistant devices is expected to grow from $720 million in 2016 to $3.52 billion in 2021, according to Gartner. But consumers will drive most of that demand. The firm expects enterprise adoption will accelerate in 2019, beginning with hospitality and healthcare.  

"Our research shows that companies are interested in these kinds of capabilities, but it will take some time until there are clear business cases that will drive procurement budgets," Lazar said.

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