IT and Business Insights for SMB Solution Providers

Artificial Intelligence and the Channel

Companies like Microsoft, IBM, and Salesforce are all betting big on AI. Should channel pros do the same?

By Megan Santosus

Long the fodder for sci-fi story lines, artificial intelligence (AI) is now on the verge of becoming mainstream. From voice-recognizing personal assistants to self-driving cars and robots that can “learn,” AI and its related technologies are now making inroads in many industries. According to IDC, the market for AI and cognitive systems reached $8 billion in 2016, and will expand to more than $47 billion by 2020, growth propelled primarily by software followed by services and hardware.

While most of the early adopters of AI are enterprises, that will change as the technology increasingly becomes embedded in software applications and vendors make AI available as services via the cloud. Yet AI can provide the SMB channel with opportunities today—if not to make significant money, then at least to engage clients in a conversation that could lead to profits down the road.

Among large vendors, Microsoft, and to a lesser extent IBM with its Watson platform, are “pushing the democratization of AI,” says Karl Freund, a senior analyst who specializes in high-performance computing and deep learning at Moor Insights & Strategy, a technology analyst firm. Microsoft Cognitive Services provides APIs to enable developers with basic coding skills to build AI into apps. Channel partners “can start to incorporate things like voice interfaces into existing business applications like ERP or CRM pretty straightforwardly today without having to become experts in AI,” Freund says.

Other top AI vendors include major automotive companies and large data center operators—Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the like, says Freund. Much of the work these vendors have done in AI has centered on internal projects; now they are beginning to make AI services available for external use, Freund says. They all have the development resources as well as the voluminous amounts of data that will be the primary drivers of the AI industry, and those end customers that are now experimenting with their AI products and services tend to be large organizations trying to figure out how AI can benefit their businesses.

What’s on the Drawing Board
Among the areas vendors are exploring are applications around language processing, vision processing, speech recognition, and predictive analytics. While use cases for AI are varied and often industry specific, the technology can be a foundation for many data-driven applications. Prime AI targets include fraud detection, insurance claims processing, medical diagnostics, and pharmaceutical research. Virtual agents and personal assistants—applications that can understand natural language to offer recommendations or automate problem resolution for customers—are also areas of interest.

While large vendors are backing up AI efforts with their considerable financial and personnel resources, other vendors are also in the game, incorporating AI into their products. Security vendor Webroot Inc., for example, has been “doing machine learning for at least 10 years,” says Dave Dufour, senior director, security architecture, at the Broomfield, Colo.-based company. Webroot enlists machine learning to analyze huge amounts of data for threat intelligence capabilities. As Dufour sees it, AI is a way to enhance existing products for the SMB market, rather than a headlining strategy.

Laurie McCabe, a partner with research firm SMB Group, says that application vendors such as Intuit, Salesforce, Slack, and Shopify are among the software providers that are embedding AI capabilities into their offerings to create so-called “smart apps” that learn and provide business insights. Slack, for example, has Slackbot, an AI chatbot that can serve up a file, among other things; Salesforce’s Einstein embeds AI into CRM to uncover insights about customers and prospects; and Shopify uses machine learning to create highly targeted Facebook ads and personalized email campaigns.

In the next few years, “AI will be infiltrating almost everything,” McCabe says. “Think about what AI is supposed to do—it’s supposed to help make computers smart and help them learn and predict trends.” In addition to the technology itself, McCabe says that SMBs will need ongoing AI-related services around integration, configuration, data cleansing, and the like.

About the Author

Megan Santosus is a Boston-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to The ChannelPro Network.

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