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IBM offers up Watson Assistant, its answer to Amazon’s Alexa

The business software giant unveils its digital helper a few months after Amazon introduced a rival service, Alexa for Business.

Watson computer at IBM in New York City

An IBM Watson's computer housing case in New York City.

 Andrew Spear/The Washington Post/Getty Images

IBM is hoping to create a new voice assistant for the business world -- and before Amazon can create one first.

At its Think conference in Las Vegas, IBM on Tuesday took the wraps off Watson Assistant, a virtual helper it's been developing with its customers for over a year.

Don't expect to start saying, "Watson, what's the weather?" or "Watson, play They Might be Giants" to an IBM-branded speaker anytime soon. Instead, Watson Assistant will function as the behind-the-scenes brains for a variety of new digital helpers made by a variety of businesses for your home and in stores, airports, hotels and cars.

For example, Watson Assistant is already in use at Munich Airport to power a robot that can tell you directions and gate information. The assistant is in development by BMW for an in-car voice helper. Also, Chameleon Technology in the UK created a Watson Assistant-driven platform called I-VIE that helps people manage their energy usage.

"We looked at the market for assistants and realized there was something else needed to make it easier for companies to use," said Bret Greenstein, IBM's global vice president for IoT products.

The assistant should help IBM's AI become a more relevant part of consumers' lives, after most folks remember Watson from its visit on "Jeopardy" seven years ago. But, IBM will likely face tough competition from Amazon, which has been aggressively growing its Alexa assistant into thousands of devices. If IBM isn't able to outmaneuver Amazon, Alexa may be able to take over a new and potentially lucrative market, after already dominating the smart home.

Amazon is already making moves in the business world. The e-commerce company in November announced a new service called Alexa for Business, which will bring its assistant into workplace settings. Plus, Amazon partnered with a handful of carmakers to bring Alexa into their vehicles, and Wynn Las Vegas rolled out plans to bring Alexa to every one of its 4,748 hotel rooms.

IBM's Greenstein said his company wasn't introducing Watson Assistant as a defensive move against Alexa, but because his business customers are asking for it. He argued that companies with more sensitive information, like energy utilities and telecommunications providers, are more likely to use Watson Assistant than a consumer brand like Alexa or Apple's Siri, because they'll have more control over their information and the customer experience.

Also, these companies will be able to name their assistants anything they want, helping them maintain a relationship with their customers, instead of handing it over to another company like Amazon, he added. (Remembering all those names may be a new problem for users, though.)

Amazon has already created a strong ecosystem filled with smart-home gadgets and Alexa skills that will be hard to beat. Also, customer awareness of Alexa rose to 89 percent last year, according to an RBC Capital Markets survey. IBM's view on those strengths is less than positive.

"The idea that one assistant will rule your life," Greenstein said, "is kind of frightening."

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