Recently Amazon and Facebook announced new products that will extend their reach into the corporate world:
- Amazon’s Alexa for Business, unveiled November 30, is a platform for a business’s employees to use the Amazon Alexa voice assistant (in Amazon Echo speakers) to manage everyday tasks such as scheduling conference calls and managing calendars. Amazon believes that with Echo smart speakers embedded in corporate conference rooms and offices to manage the mundane things, people will be freed up to focus on more productive work.
- Facebook’s Oculus for Business, announced October 11, is a bundled set of Oculus products designed to help businesses apply virtual reality (VR) to do everything from train employees to design cars. In fact, although VR has experienced slow adoption among consumers, the corporate world is a different story, where VR is penetrating industries including entertainment, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, and retail. Facebook believes that by making it easy to purchase hardware, accessories, and associated services needed to employ VR in the workforce, more companies will adopt Oculus over competing products.
These announcements are more than landmark moments for Amazon and Facebook. Alexa for Business and Oculus for Business are also manifestations of something else: the ambitions of Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg to be market makers with artificial intelligence-based voice assistants and virtual reality.
As I wrote in Fast Company in 2013, market makers do more than sell products. They influence beliefs and behaviors. For example:
- Steve Jobs was a market maker because the iPhone accelerated mobile behavior.
- Mark Zuckerberg is a market maker because Facebook helped make us more social. Now Zuckerberg wants to change how we live with virtual reality, and Facebook owning VR manufacturer Oculus gives him the platform he needs.
- Jeff Bezos is a market maker because Amazon is doing more than sell Echo speakers that employ the Alexa voice assistant. He wants to change the way we interact with devices, relying on our voices (instead of keyboards) just like the crew of the USS Enterprise did in Star Trek.
Market makers measure success by more than sales. Zuckerberg recently vowed to get one billion people to use virtual reality. At the 2017 Oculus Connect conference, he said, “We believe that one day almost everyone is going to use virtual reality to improve how we work, how we play, and how we connect with each other. [Virtual reality] is not about escaping reality. It’s about making it better. It’s about curing diseases, connecting families, spreading empathy, rethinking work, improving games, and, yes, bringing us all closer together.”
Jeff Bezos, commenting on Amazon’s latest quarterly earnings, talked of the Amazon Alexa voice assistant surpassing 25,000 skills, distinguishing between two voices, and becoming a smarter companion to people who own the Echo smart speaker. Why would he dwell on those points? Because although sales are important, Alexa must continue to get better for humans to become more comfortable using their voices to rely on machines – and experience real behavioral change.
As Bezos told Billboard, Alexa is not about shopping but rather, “Alexa is primarily about identifying tasks in the household that would be improved by voice.”
For both Bezos and Zuckerberg, targeting the corporate world is an important way to encourage uptake of their devices and thus change behavior.
Mark Zuckerberg is keenly aware that businesses – big ones like Ford, McDonald’s, and Walmart – are already using VR to re-imagine the way work is done and products are sold. But VR has a long way to go outside the workplace. In the United States, there are probably only 9.6 million people who use virtual reality at least once a month, according to eMarketer.
Zuckerberg is not going to get one billion people to adopt VR anytime soon. The price of the equipment, clunky user interface, and dearth of good content are all near-term impediments. But the work place is a different story. Here, VR is finding a home, a reason being that businesses can more readily absorb the cost of VR equipment and justify the cost with demonstrable return on investment. For instance, British travel business Thomas Cook saw a 190-percent uplift in bookings for New York vacations when the company created a VR experience allowing travelers to experience, through a headset, a taste of New York.
As I discussed on my blog recently, businesses are Trojan Horses for VR, incorporating it for a captive audience. A company such as Walmart, which employs 1.6 million, can have tremendous impact making people more comfortable with VR’s use.
Jeff Bezos is operating from a different position: the Amazon Echo has gained adoption first in consumers’ homes as opposed to the workplace. The Echo commands 76 percent of the market share for smart speakers. In 2017, 25 million Americans will use Echo speakers at least once a month, according to eMarketer – and the Echo is barely two years old. It looks like he’s not having any challenge convincing consumers to use the Echo. Now he’s banking on the likelihood that the Echo is becoming so popular that the use of Echo in the workplace will be a natural extension of consumer usage.
To extend his reach, he needs help. Unlike Mark Zuckerberg, he lacks compelling examples of how voice has penetrated the workplace like VR has already. Selling speakers to companies brings its own set of challenges, such as convincing a corporate bureaucracy to play ball. But Jeff Bezos isn’t exactly an unknown product salesman. And if Alexa for Business gains traction, the product will achieve scale. Bezos has many advantages in this regard:
- He is one of the most powerful business leaders in the world, and Amazon is one of the most powerful companies in the world. As reported in TechCrunch, Amazon is already working with business partners such as Microsoft and WeWork to develop the applications needed for companies to use Alexa among multiple employees.
- He has not only the product but the infrastructure, Amazon Web Services, required to host any business wanting to integrate Alexa for Business.
- Echo is on a roll.
Amazon and Facebook are not alone. Both face plenty of competition, Facebook more so because companies such as Samsung have seen adoption of their own VR products in the workforce. But both Zuckerberg and Bezos possess two intangibles that set apart market makers: resolve and resilience. They both believe in their visions and possess an ability to manage the inevitable bumps in the road that come with technology adoption. Neither will stop until they get what they want.
Moreover, their companies already possess scale, power, and wealth. Bezos and Zuckerberg can literally afford to be resilient. I wouldn’t bet against them. Would you?