Will.i.am was sitting in a tight, grey conference room in San Francisco’s Moscone Center when he dropped a bomb on me: Not Amazon, nor Apple, nor Google, nor anyone had developed a real voice assistant… yet.
When will.i.am says he’s working on an assistant, I say I have one on my iPhone.
“No, you don’t,” he said. He grabbed his own phone from the table. “That’s a platform on iOS.”
I’m meeting with him to learn about Omega, which he — like any confident entrepreneur — argues is far superior than its competitors. Yes, will.i.am believes he has the next big thing, and he’s not alone. There’s $117 million in fresh venture funding and a team of Amazon veterans with him.
He believes, really believes, that Omega will be the next era in computing.
“It’s not voice tasks like, ‘Turn on the lights,’ and ‘What’s the weather?’ It’s how we’re talking now, and that’s the way you’re going to talk to machines,” will.i.am said.
Laugh all you want, but he makes a case. I met will.i.am during Dreamforce, a massive conference put on by Salesforce that attracts much of the top talent in the world of tech. The rapper-songwriter might not have a great reputation for being a visionary in the tech press, but his reputation in the tech community is of a person with genuine ambition.
Of course, he’s not doing this on his own. He recently hired established tech veterans Matt Tavis as his VP of Solutions Architecture and Kay Kinton as his VP of Communications. They both spent years at Microsoft and Amazon.
Kinton likened my questions on the potential of Omega with those she received from journalists during the early days of Amazon Web Services.
“I remember calling up journalists at that time and saying, ‘We got this technology infrastructure,’ and the story went like this: Why is a book seller… trying to sell me technology? The companies that you think are going to be leading in tech, it could be a lot different,” Kinton said.
Based in Los Angeles, i.am+ and its 300 employees is taking on what will.i.am and basically every other major tech company sees as a big part of the future of computing: voice-based interaction. Apple has Siri, Amazon continues to develop Alexa, Google’s Assistant is a newer entrant, and even Facebook is reportedly poaching Apple veterans and working on voice tech.
Will.i.am was so quick to refute the notion that I, or any iPhone user, wouldn’t want Omega when we met. “But I have one in here,” I told him and picked up my iPhone. He picked up his own and began typing in the search bar.
“Siri is really [the search bar]. You’re limited in what you type and what you get,” he said.
Looking at the device, I asked why he didn’t have an iPhone X, and he pulled Apple’s latest model out of his pocket. will.i.am is quite the Apple fan. He invested in Beats Electronics prior to the headphone maker selling to Apple. He also was one of four judges on Apple’s first TV show Planet of the Apps, where he not only provided mentorship but also comedic relief.
Unlike its competitors, Omega is focused on business and customer support rather than average internet users who ask questions like “What’s the weather?” That’s one of the reasons he was at Salesforce’s Dreamforce, a conference mostly for enterprise businesses.
Timed with the launch of Omega for Enterprise last week, i.am+ released a video with an employee on the go demonstrating some functionalities:
That could soon change in part thanks to a boatload of cash.
Asked why he’s betting on voice tech and how he’s mapping out its future, will.i.am first points to milestones in the past. To will.i.am, the major turning points in tech have happened 10 years apart: home computers in 1997, iPhones in 2007, and Omega in 2017.
“Right now, imagine it’s 1997, and the way we used to do things change because the laptop and the desktop is now in our lives. Imagine it’s 2007, and things change because the iPhone came out and iOS changed our lives. We do more things on the iPhone than we did on our desktops and laptops,” will.i.am said with a sense of amazement at his own business venture.
It’s easy to discount will.i.am, best known as a member of the Black Eyed Peas and among the tech press for several failed attempts at consumer tech. Mashable‘s Ray Wong called will.i.am’s Puls a “wearable nightmare” in a 2015 review.
Will.i. am raising $117 million to develop enterprise software has finally convinced me that we’re in a bubble.
— James Cook (@JamesLiamCook) November 7, 2017
But will.i.am’s got some people betting big bucks on his vision. I.am+ announced $117 million in venture capital funding in November from numerous investors including Salesforce Ventures. The company also revealed Deutsche Telekom, the parent company of T-Mobile, is its first enterprise customer and has been using its service since July. Therefore, Omega is already providing online support for its millions of customers.
Despite some flops, will.i.am hasn’t ever shied away from pursuing new tech projects. When asked why i.am+ raised so much capital, his reply was articulate with CEO confidence and some business jargon.
“The amount of money that we raised allowed us to make it and build it the way we want to build it,” will.i.am said. “The trajectory of DT adopted it and [that] they have millions of customers across Europe shows us how deep and heavy our platform is.”
Omega is a software system, but in the future, it could be integrated into consumer hardware whether that’s will.i.am’s own devices or partners.
With the new funding, his team is investing in research and development. The capital will be used to hire more talented and experienced tech veterans like Tavis. He joined in August after working at Amazon for 12 years. Tavis was a part of the early team building Amazon Web Services and later helped partners develop on top of Alexa.
Sitting across from will.i.am, Tavis told me he’s bullish on the potential of Omega even though i.am+ doesn’t have the street cred of Amazon.
“I think if done correctly, reaching back into my Amazon experience, it’s all about structure and architecture,” Tavis said. “We’re not trying to replace financial services or replace customer support. We’re trying to enable those experiences to be richer and to be conversational and be much more efficient.”
Tavis added that there won’t just be one player offering voice technology.
“There’s others obviously in this space, but I would take the analogy back to when cloud computing first started. Was there really going to be one cloud?” Tavis said.
The answer? No. There’s a few, but they’re all the big players. That said, will.i.am doesn’t mind if people don’t believe in what he’s building. To him, it’s good company.
“In 1977, IBM was the computer company, and then in the ’80s, Steve Jobs was like, ‘I want to give everyone a personal computer,’ and IBM was like, ‘Oh, look at this guy. What the fuck are people going to do with computers?'” will.i.am said. “And it changed the world.”