will.i.am is a pop music star and entrepreneur. He is best known for his musical career which includes solo work and as the frontman for The Black Eyed Peas. However, he is also an accomplished entrepreneur and successful investor outside of music. He was a founding shareholder in Beats Electronics which was sold to Apple for $2.6 billion. He also has a burgeoning consumer products company, Iam+ which sells some very large and stylish bluetooth earphones called Buttons. Given his experience with Beats by Dre and long history in the fashion industry, the Buttons product is not surprising. Many pop stars now have clothing and accessory lines. What you don’t see pop stars other than Ashton Kutcher do, ever, is start a company to build enterprise software.
Omega Voice Assistant for the Enterprise
will.i.am revealed this week at a Salesforce conference that Iam+ is building and AI-based voice assistant called Omega. Omega for enterprise is a voice assistant as you would imagine it for business users. The video showcasing planned product features highlights a businesswoman sending a colleague a forecast report, checking product inventory availability while driving and on a conference call with a business partner, checking email and scheduling a meeting. The latter two use cases are things that Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant users can do today to some extent. The former two use cases require a good deal of Natural Language Understanding (NLU) domain expertise and deep integration into enterprise software systems.
The scenes show the business woman interacting with the Omega voice assistant through a mobile device, laptop, car hands-free connection and, of course, Iam+ Buttons. The use cases are about versatility across input devices as much as they are for depth of support for common business tasks.
$117 Million to Compete Against Watson, Cortana, Spark, Amelia and Nuance
Iam+ has raised $123 million to date according to Crunchbase. GVA capital put in $6 million in 2014, presumably based on the earphone Button business. Earlier this month, Salesforce Ventures put in $117 million that is specifically designed to build out Omega. ARN reports that Iam+ now employs 300 people. The article went on to suggest that Omega is well past the concept stage and is actually in production at Deutsche Telekom:
I.am+’s first enterprise customer is Deutsche Telekom AG, the German telecommunications giant and parent company of T-Mobile. Since July, the company has been using Omega to power an AI customer support chatbot and it plans to add a voice phone system soon, i.am+ said…Will.i.am said customer support is just the start of Omega. The plan is to use the technology to build several more enterprise voice AI products.
While Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant get most of the news coverage, they are primarily focused on consumer applications. Omega is on a collision course instead for business oriented voice assistants from IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, IPSoft and Nuance. Each of these companies have deep enterprise relationships and proven ability to integrate with enterprise systems for their other products. There are also startups like Voysis and SoundHound aiming to serve business users in similar use cases. As crowded as the consumer voice assistant market looks today, the enterprise segment is quickly becoming even more crowded.
Omega Voice Assistant for Enterprise Will Face Challenges
Everyone certainly understands that Omega will face challenges in its bid to court enterprise buyers. First, it must achieve technical superiority for the voice assistant to win deals. However, it must also build the systems integration and enterprise sales expertise required to successfully serve global companies. These are key reasons behind why the company needs so much funding now.
Every big technology shift produces some startup that surprises everyone, unseats the big incumbents and becomes a runaway success. will.i.am doesn’t seem the most obvious startup CEO to succeed in this space, but you never know. Having Salesforce behind you certainly doesn’t hurt. My bet is that Omega gets a few deals, invests heavily in its NLU and is then acquired by a giant tech company that is looking to make up ground in the space. Cisco paid $125 million for MindMeld which is now the backbone behind its Spark voice assistant. Maybe Apple will decide it needs an enterprise complement to Siri’s consumer user base. What other company could Apple buy that aligns with the Cupertino sense of style? As will.i.am said to ARN:
One of those [Omega assistants] is handling hundreds of thousands of customers’ inquiries about their data plans simultaneously. If it can do that, your imagination’s the limit.
We may already be at peak voice assistant. Check out our recent article on the Gartner Hype Cycle for emerging technologies.