Project Voice – The Future is in Chattanooga
Nothing in that title likely makes sense to BCStrategies readers, but now that I have your attention, let me explain. Aside from being an independent analyst, I’m an unconventional analyst, and my perspectives are not drawn exclusively from the usual suspects in the collaboration space. Of course, that cast of characters grows larger as the cloud and AI players get a beachhead on territory dominated by the incumbent telecom vendors.
While I do my share of writing about the vendor events most of my colleagues attend, we all get to other events that are off the beaten track. Sometimes they’re focused on a specific technology or niche market, and sometimes they’re hosted by small or lesser vendors that haven’t quite broken through yet. This is actually a big part of what makes analyst work so interesting, as we’re always on the lookout for what’s next.
Project Voice is one such event, and am sure I can count on one hand how many people in our community know about it – and three of them play with me in the SIPtones (and yes, we did perform there!). A key reason is that the event is largely consumer-focused, but I think the location may have something to do with that as well. This was my first time attending Project Voice, and filtering things through my BC Expert lens, I’ve got some takeaways to share here that anyone on a collaboration buyer’s journey should find of interest.
What’s this all about?
Project Voice is run by is run by Bradley Metrock, as part of his Chattanooga-based Score Publishing, which has several events and podcast properties, but none directly touch our space. However, this particular event is squarely in my coverage, namely the confluence of AI and voice technologies. This is the realm of speech recognition and conversational AI, both of which are looming large now in the contact center, and are making inroads into the enterprise.
Bradley Metrock, Score Publishing
As such, it’s not a big leap for me to have a strong interest in the topics. In fact, one of the reasons for me being there was to give a louder voice, so to speak, to the relevance of these technologies in the enterprise and contact center. That took the form of two sessions I moderated on these themes, and with both being well-attended, there definitely was interest from this consumer-heavy audience.
You’re probably also wondering “why Chattanooga?”, and I’m with you on that one. Well, it’s Bradley’s home base, and being his show, his simple answer is “why not?” – but I think there’s a deeper answer that our readers should consider. While not yet a humming tech hub, Chattanooga is the first major community in the U.S. to have Gigabit speed FTTH, thanks to their local utility, EPB. For a city that truly needs to reinvent itself, this is the kind of vision that provides a foundation for the future, and entrepreneurs like Bradley are helping to make that happen.
The net result is that small and mid-size cities like Chattanooga have a lot to offer in terms of affordability, pace of life and quality of life that is attractive to those looking for better futures outside much bigger cities nearby like Atlanta and Nashville. Urban markets are great for those who can afford to be there, and the very technologies we follow here at BCStrategies make working in smaller centers like Chattanooga viable, both for local businesses and anyone who works remotely.
Tie that back to what EPB has done with FTTH, and it starts to add up. Whether it’s FTTH or 5G, connectivity is foundational for the digital economy, and as Future of Work becomes a thing, the answer to “why not?” isn’t that hard to fathom. I get it.
Consumer technology leads where enterprises will follow
I can only touch on one big theme in this post, and that’s the key takeaway for me. This idea is just an extension of the “consumerization of IT” – which has been with us for years – but the pattern is the same with what I saw at Project Voice. The collaboration space has been disrupted in recent times by consumer-first companies who lack any pedigree in communications or enterprise applications, namely Amazon and Google, and to a lesser extent, Facebook. Innovation just seems to happen faster in the consumer world, and when these kinds of companies enter the collaboration space, they’re not flying blind.
I’m the first to say that AI-driven voice has yet to find its legs in the enterprise – which is a key reason why Project Voice is of interest – and it seems to me that what was on tap here is a harbinger of things to come. It’s important to note that the contact center is further along this path than what’s used for enterprise collaboration – which should be no surprise since the utility of AI-driven voice is driven by customer expectations – which of course, are being set by how these same technologies are being used now in their personal lives.
For AI-driven voice to get greater traction with enterprise collaboration, there have to be clear use cases that make workers more productive and the organization more agile. In some scenarios, there may even need to be a business case, especially around reducing costs via automation. There were some good examples at the event from the consumer world that could easily be adapted for enterprise collaboration, and I can only address one in this post.
So, I’ll start at the top with the biggest player. Amazon’s Jeff Blankenburg provided a great update on how fast things are moving with Alexa. The installed base of Echo devices has hit 100 million, there are over 100,000 Alexa Skills now – last year it was 50,000 – and they have hundreds of thousands of Alexa Skills developers. If that’s not an innovation machine, I don’t know what is. More importantly, Jeff noted a 100% increase in “skills engagement.” Translation – users are doing more than just asking about the weather.
This is part of the power of their platform (and by extension AI and Machine Learning) – Alexa tracks everything, so they know exactly what Echo is being used for. As the UX keeps improving, people will engage more deeply and more often, and it’s not hard to see this becoming the go-to device for starting your day. From there, it won’t take long for this relationship to become persistent throughout your entire day, and in our always-on world, this could easily extend across your entire life.
Much like how many of us start our work day with email (unless you’re a Slack devotee), Alexa for Business could usurp that role as workplace Skills mature. Again, think about where Amazon is in the consumer world, and how that trajectory might unfold in the workplace. While Alexa for Business is primarily Smart Speakers in meetings, Amazon has built out its consumer endpoint portfolio to touch every aspect of our personal lives – Echo Dot in the kitchen, Echo Show in the bedroom, Auto in your car, Buds in your ears, Frame for your glasses, Loop on your finger, etc.
What you should be thinking about for collaboration
When Alexa can become this persistent during every waking moment, it’s not hard to see the same thing happening in the workplace once the right set of Skills is in place. Regardless of how much business value Amazon can bring to enterprise collaboration, the real disruption for our readers is how this exemplifies what I call the “New Voice.” Everything Amazon is doing here is driven by voice, but with zero use of phones, dial plans, extensions, voicemail, etc. Telephony is not in the equation here, so if you still think about voice in these terms, you need a re-set.
I would need several posts to round out my highlights from Project Voice, but this alone should provide enough pause to consider what’s coming from the consumer world, and how enterprise collaboration is poised to evolve. Telephony isn’t going away, but clearly there are other voice modalities that make collaboration better, and will be highly intuitive for today’s digital natives.
Finally, switching modalities, I’ll share these photos, which show representation at Project Voice both from BCStrategies and the SCTC community.
Our crowd, on two different stages – with Steve Leaden, Rick Hathaway and Chuck Vondra