Amazon Alexa is eating the retailers alive

I am far from an early technology adopter. I did not get an iPhone till 2011. A year ago a friend introduced me to Amazon Alexa and I thought it was neat just not for me at the time. I followed the press articles about it nevertheless.

Finally about two weeks ago I bought an Amazon Echo device. Immediately, it became the most used appliance in our household. Within minutes it became clear that Amazon has built something much better and much more powerful than Siri. It also became obvious that Amazon has created a whole new shopping experience that no other retailer has thought of. As a developer I am amazed at the simplicity of building skills for it.

Alexa as a consumer service

This morning I wanted to confirm when my daughter’s piano lesson was. Consider the experience of using your smartphone to check your calendar: unlock, swipe around, find the calendar app, tap on it, realize it is not showing you what you are looking for, swipe around some more, look for a button that switches me to day view, and finally I see what I am looking for.

I didn’t use my phone, however. Having my coffee in the kitchen, I said causally in no particular direction: “Alexa, what’s on the calendar for today?” In a calm voice she replied: “You have two events on your calendar for today. There is Father’s Day barbecue at our house, and there is Miriam’s piano lesson at 12:30.”

Trying to decide whether to have our barbecue outside or not, my wife asked: “Alexa, what’s the weather like today?” and the AI gave us exactly the information it asked. As we were setting up the fire pit outside, I said: “Alexa, please turn all the exterior lights on.” Alexa obediently said “Ok” and activated all five Insteon switches scattered around the house that control our exterior lights.

I am writing this article right now and for some background music I asked Alexa to “play Norah Jones please” which she started streaming from Amazon Prime Music. I didn’t have to swipe anything, didn’t have to tap on anything, didn’t have to press any buttons.

Consider the experience of shopping for household items, like laundry detergent. If you are using your phone, it’s the all too familiar procedure – unlock, swipe, drag, drool, find the app for your retailer, find the product, add to shopping cart, check out, enter your payment information, order. With Alexa, it’s easy: “Alexa, please order some laundry detergent” and she combines your past Amazon order history and product recommendations and offers to order what you need from Amazon.

Alexa is unobtrusive. You don’t know it’s there. It is not asking you to learn any multi-touch gestures. It is not asking you to learn new buttons or a new way of interacting with technology. You are not required to wear anything on your wrist. It serves it’s primary purpose as a connected speaker very well, and it is priced competitively to other connected speakers out there.

Alexa as an application platform

My first computer was Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48. It had 48 Kilobytes of memory. It had built-in BASIC interpreter. The graphics, by today’s standards, was pretty horrible. Despite its limitations it was easy to learn how to program : you turned it on, it booted into BASIC, and you could be on your way towards building a useful tool in minutes.

The very first programs I’ve written were simple text-based tools. They would show a list of choices, wait for the user to input a selection, and then show a next set of choices or perform the selected action. Since 1980s, the computers have become so
complicated that building apps today requires deep knowledge of complex topics. Even users are fed up with the complexity – just consider the examples of finding information using your phone I’ve described above.

It is 2016 now and chat bots are revolutionizing the way we interact with technology. Facebook has invested heavily in the Messenger platform, Amazon is aggressively marketing Alexa-enabled devices, and Google recently announced their Google Home platform. Every major tech company is trying to establish themselves in what is turning out to be the Next Big Thing in how we interact with technology and information.

Amazon made is ridiculously easy to add skills to Alexa resulting in dozens of skills being added daily by individual developers and companies. Because Amazon has the somewhat unfair advantage of having AWS at their disposal, they are able to eliminate all friction that surrounds learning and building software for a new platform.

Since purchasing an Echo, I’ve written a couple of skills for Alexa and submitted them for certification to Amazon. While I used JavaScript to write these programs, I could have used Python or Java with AWS Lambda platform.

If that wasn’t enough, or if I didn’t want to use AWS Lambda, I could have used whatever technology I wanted as long as it could respond to HTTPS requests. Mind you, using AWS Lambda costs me absolutely nothing to host until it starts handling millions of requests – and I should be so lucky to build something so useful that it gets that much traffic. The point is, I was not required to learn any new programming language that I did not already know.

To submit a skill to Amazon Alexa skills “store” I did not need to make any investments. I did not need to pay a dime, or commit to any unreasonable legal restrictions on how I can monetize my skill. I simply used my existing Amazon account to log on to the developer portal and in a few easy steps I submitted my newly written Alexa skills to Amazon for certification. One has already been approved.

As a developer what I like is that Amazon is acknowledging that they do not know what the future holds. They are asking the developer community to help build the platform to its full potential.

Alexa helps Amazon eat traditional retailers alive

Let’s face it. At the end of the day, Alexa does create a delightful shopping experience on Amazon. Consider the shopping experience I described above that used a phone, and compare it with simplicity of saying what it is that you want. Like it or not, no other retailer has thought of this.

Did Walmart think of this ? Nope. Walmart doesn’t even have a developer API and just doesn’t seem to bring their own IT systems up to date. Their Retail Link service only works with Internet Explorer 7 or 8 and looks and behaves like something that may have been built in 2003. Walmart even states as much on their supplier support page.

I don’t normally shop at Walmart. I wanted to try a newly opened one in my town a try. I ordered a couple of lawn chairs for store pick up. The goods were shipped and I got a text message two days later that it was available for pick up. A 15 minute drive to the store, and 30 mins of waiting for someone to acknowledge me at the pick up counter I had my order in my hands. If this was Amazon, it would have been delivered same day to my porch at no addition cost and no time wasted on my behalf. Between Amazon Dash buttons and Alexa, Amazon truly creates a fricitonless shopping experience.

The problem for retailers that compete with Amazon is that now Amazon has placed these devices into people’s homes. Consumers are unlikely to want multiple similar “bots” in their homes. I can see people having multiple voice assistants, but as a consumer I know one thing – I am not going to want more than one connected speaker in my house from different vendors.

Amazon is not preventing any other retailer from creating a skill for Alexa. It would be interesting, for example, to be able to have Alexa ask Walgreens for the status of my prescription. Will traditional retailers swallow their pride and take advantage of Amazon’s technology ? I guess we’ll find out.


Featured image credit: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

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