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Staples develops an office competitor to Amazon Echo and Google Home

Sharon Gaudin | Oct. 27, 2016
The office supply company turns its Easy Button into device that will be the assistant's assistant

LAS VEGAS -- While the Amazon Echo and Google Home brought the digital assistant to the home, Staples wants to do the same for the office.

To do so, the office supply chain store is bringing its iconic Easy Button to life.

Massachusetts-based Staples is testing a smart assistant device that looks like its Easy Button, which was launched as a marketing campaign and gained a bit of a cult following, but that customers can use to order products, track shipments and help with returns.

One day, according to Staples' chief digital officer Faisal Masud, the device, backed by artificial intelligence-based IBM Watson, will also be able to call up janitorial services, make restaurant reservations, check traffic and weather, set reminders, act as an alarm clock and play the radio.

staples easy button 1 
Staples is converting its well-known Easy Button into an office digital assistant

"We want to be the assistant's assistant," Masud told Computerworld in an interview at the IBM World of Watson conference here this week. "Offices are going to evolve, and these services and products shouldn't be more than a click away. I need the carpets cleaned, the windows cleaned. I need reservations for the boss at a restaurant… It will be for more than ordering pens and pencils."

Staples's smart office assistant will go into alpha testing with five to 10 customers by the end of the year. It's scheduled to go into a larger beta test with about 100 large customers in the first quarter of next year.

Depending on the results of those two tests, the Easy Button device could be released in the second or third quarter of 2017, Masud said.

Initially, the device will be focused on ordering products, returns and tracking orders, but Staples has a bigger roadmap planned for it.

As new versions of the product are released, the Easy Button is expected to gain more abilities. Users will be able to ask it for the weather forecast or traffic advisories, to make dinner reservations for the CEO, or call a repair service to fix the coffee machine in the break room or to have the office carpets cleaned.

Eventually, Masud expects it to be 4G-enabled so it won't need to connect to Wi-Fi.

It's about getting ahead of, or at least keeping up with, the growing trend toward conversational commerce, which refers to interacting with companies in new ways, like messaging, voice commands and chat apps.

faisal masud staples cropped 
Faisal Masud is chief digital officer at Staples.

"Conversational commerce is here already, and we need to play a role in it," Masud said. "I think it's less about [gaining] advantage over competitors. It's about where the market is going. Conversational commerce is the future. You won't be tied to the screen. We believe we need to give customers choices. It could make us more competitive, but that's not the reason we're doing it."

 

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