Staples develops an office competitor to Amazon Echo and Google Home

The office supply company turns its Easy Button into device that will be the assistant's assistant

staples ezb button

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

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 Staples

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."

IBM Watson, which gained fame in a 2011 man-versus-machine matchup with game show Jeopardy contestants, has gone on be used in the financial industry, academic research and health care.

For Masud, it's a natural for retail, as well, by providing companies with a system that knows their entire inventory of products and their customers' needs, as well.

"This is really very easy for Watson, so using it makes sense," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "It's a good idea. However, unless and until it has more services, it's just a smart Easy Button, but that is worthwhile, too, if ordering supplies is your job."

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said the Watson part of this device will have to work really well or users will be disappointed and frustrated.

"It has to be more precise than the consumer Echo because we are talking about business, not fun," he said, adding that it's wise for Staples to roll out services gradually. "It should allow them to work it out over time but, again, business people are impatient and it needs to be done quickly."

The Easy Button device is one of the ways that Staples executives want customers to be able to connect with the retailer.

While customers can still walk into the company's more than 3,000 stores worldwide, they also can make orders by phone, through a mobile smart app, over Facebook Messenger and with a Slackbot.

The Easy Button device, though, is designed to take customer service to a new level – an artificial intelligence-fueled level of customer connection.

"You say, 'I want to place an order for paper.' It will look up what paper you ordered before and say, "Is this what you want?' Then you approve it and it's done," Masud said. "Today, if you look at the life of folks interacting with us, we don't want them spending any time dealing with friction, like calling to check in on their order or figuring out what they should buy. We want that to be seamless."

Masud doesn't see Staples' device as a competitor to the Echo or Google Home.

"We don't think it's a competitor because we won't be in homes at all," he said. "This is a highly functional device for the office. We are focused on the assistant or the procurement manager."

Masud said office assistants and managers will be freed up by having the Easy Button device handle the brunt of their ordering and delivery tracking, so they can work on more complicated and important tasks.

"Watson can address more questions from customers quickly," he added. "Now people aren't holding on the phone, or exchanging emails or wasting time somehow. We want to incorporate services into all of this. We have business cards and copy and print services. Those are a little fragmented to the customer and now they'll be unified by the Easy Button. We want to make office management a lot easier."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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