Recently, I was ordering some household goods through Amazon Echo as my three-year-old listened. I stepped out of the room momentarily, and she mimicked my words, delivering more orders to Alexa, the “brain” of Echo who fulfills my voice commands. Long story short: we ended up with an order of three dozen paper towels because Sloane got chatty with Alexa.
As the Internet of Things (IoT) and the “Great Sensorization” carry us into a brave new world of interconnectedness, digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Now will become smarter, more conversational, and increasingly involved in our lives. I debated whether Alexa should be included in our Holiday card family photo. Technologists estimate 6.4 billion connected devices by 2016, with that number skyrocketing to more than 50 billion connected things by 2020.
The first crop of IoT products and services is already chipping away at the market, and early adopters have been controlling their thermostats and door locks via smartphone for years. For every Internet-connected computer or smartphone, there will be 5-10 other types of devices sold with native Internet connectivity in the future. To put this in perspective, today there are 80 “things” connecting for the first time to the Internet every second, and by 2020 this will expand to 250 every second, according to research by Raymond James. But how long before sensors are a part of everything we touch, and Alexa can manage everything in your home and even run your errands for you?
Alexa Wants to Be Your Personal Digital Assistant
Amazon’s Alexa is unique because, unlike Apple or Google, Amazon sells just about everything and is already intimately connected to our homes and purchase behaviors. Unlike Siri or Cortana, “she” doesn’t just exist as an app inside a mobile device, but rather as the soul of Amazon’s Echo, currently a proprietary speaker and voice command device.
Alexa is touted by Amazon as “a cloud-based voice service, to provide information, answer questions, play music, read the news, check sports scores or the weather, and more—instantly.” Already customers can purchase music or products from Amazon through voice commands. Yet one doesn’t have to stretch the imagination very far to envision a future where Alexa is authorized to make most, if not all, purchases for you, and is smart enough to get it right every time.
Embedded sensors will allow consumable household products to be inventoried, monitored, and replenished automatically. Your printer could tell Alexa that you’re running low on paper or ink, and she’ll simply order more and send you a notification on your smartphone. You may never need to think about buying groceries again; you could say “Alexa, I want to eat tacos on Fridays,” and she’ll order the necessary supplies.
Alexa Is a Gateway to Passive Purchases
Although there are billions of connected devices out there, 87 percent of people have never so much as heard of the Internet of Things. In the enterprise, only 8% of U.S. IT decision makers are already using IoT, according to 451 Research. And despite the popularity of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, there are still plenty of people who are very concerned about riding in a car with a stranger. There’s a huge cross-section of consumers who aren’t ready to take the leap to welcoming a digital personal assistant into their homes nor issuing cloud-based voice commands.
Many consumers might be uncomfortable with the idea that something is passively observing their behavior, making recommendations, and potentially spending their money. When you consider the fear or distrust that often surrounds around any new technology, not to mention the very valid privacy concerns, it’s not surprising that many people may be reluctant to trust sensored devices to make personal purchase decisions for them.
Beyond the initial phase of M2M industrial connectivity – simply designed to collect data from high value assets, typically in factories, with a total expectation of 100s of millions of connections versus the billions above – the home is the first frontier of IoT for most people. Many are already familiar and comfortable with connected devices like Nest that enhance convenience in the home. Building off of these existing relationships with automated home IoT products, brands will be able to build trust and entice users to opt-in to passive purchases. Eventually, we’ll reach the point where opting-in is the default setting, and we’ll only need to think about our purchase decisions in terms of opting-out. For example, before going on vacation, you remind Alexa to hold the usual order of paper towels—otherwise, they’ll land on your doorstep every week.
We Won’t All Embrace Alexa until She Plays Nice with Others
We’re currently waiting for the countless sensors already in the environment to learn to talk to one another. For the personal digital assistants of the future to truly run your household for you, they cannot operate in silos. When the sensors on your phone, fridge, thermostat, television, car, and everything-else-you-interact-with can have a conversation, their ability to predict your behavior, desires, and purchase decisions will become exponentially greater—and so will your faith in that ability.
The reason we currently have mostly one-off IoT automations, instead of a concert of objects and actions working together, is that there’s a big standardization and connectivity hurdle. Establishing standards and protocols for how IoT devices will communicate and interact with us and with each other is still a massive undertaking for developers and manufacturers, but the potential of these systems and sensors will only start to be realized when they can all talk to each other in standardized, secure ways. This ecosystem and the ability to truly support partners and enable a developer ecosystem is the emerging, true innovation phase for IoT.
At AnyPresence, we initially saw large enterprises asking for help to enable these siloed connected devices, for example Schneider Electric’s electric vehicle charging stations. But more recently, customers have begun using our platform to enable more advanced process flows, reimagining how the consumer would want to engage, how the workflow should be, rather than simply automating today’s process. For example, one of our clients is the world’s largest consumer appliance manufacturer. They used our platform to rethink the consumer experience with their wine refrigerator. Now re-imagine your wine fridge. You can monitor the temperature, get an alert if the door is left open, track inventory, get ratings from wine.com for new recommended pruchases based on the current contents, or set up autoreplienishment. This is a new consumer process flow, enabled by a concert of connected devices and external data flows.
Alexa and the Rest Need to Start Earning Consumer Trust Today
However, even with the connectivity hurdle out of the way, it is going to take more than great technology to get beyond the niche “techie” user to the broader market. Perhaps the biggest challenge for brands who will offer opt-in “life automation solutions” lies beyond the nuts and bolts of pure connectivity: how do you get customers to sign up in the first place?
It will take true creativity and customer understanding to offer an IoT user experience that inspires consumers to give up their information. The rewards of IoT must far outweigh the risks, offering enough convenience, relevance, and incentive to overcome consumers’ natural reluctance to hand Amazon’s AIexa a blank check, or to set up a systems of “puts” and “calls” for your home or office IoT ecosystem. Perhaps it starts with personal safety and risk management, for example your dryer and iron turn off when the garage door opens to prevent fire hazards.
Brands need to listen to the customer today, and begin gathering insights, fostering trust, and growing relationships that can withstand the transition to a whole new way of purchasing.
Opening Our Doors to Alexa
A juggernaut like Amazon that can afford to concentrate all of its vast resources on this goal of purchase automation has a great opportunity to solve the issues of standardization, connectivity, and trust. In the near future, infrastructure like Amazon Locker, Amazon Fresh grocery delivery, and the experimental Prime Air drone delivery service could combine with a super-connected digital assistant like Alexa to make the passive automation process totally transparent.
To show its commitment to the Alexa platform’s future, Amazon has injected $100 million into what it calls “The Alexa Fund” and opened up the SDK to developers. Amazon is surely positioning itself as one of the power players in the “life automation” game, but the game has only just begun, and it will likely be quite some time before any winners are declared.