Thursday Nov 10, 2011

Transparent Technology from Amazon

Amazon has been making some interesting moves again, this time in the augmented humanity area.  Augmented humanity is about helping humans overcome their shortcomings using technology.  Putting a powerful smartphone in your pocket helps you in many ways like navigating streets, communicating with far off friends, and accessing information.  But the interface for smartphones is somewhat limiting and unnatural, so companies have been looking for ways to make the technology more transparent and therefore easier to use.

When Apple helped us drop the stylus, we took a giant leap forward in simplicity.  Using touchscreens with intuitive gestures was part of the iPhone's original appeal.  People don't want to know that technology is there -- they just want the benefits.  So what's the next leap beyond the touchscreen to make smartphones even easier to use?

Two natural ways we interact with the world around us is by using sight and voice.  Google and Apple have been using both in their mobile platforms for limited uses cases.  Nobody actually wants to type a text message, so why not just speak it?  Any if you want more information about a book, why not just snap a picture of the cover?  That's much more accurate than trying to key the title and/or author.

So what's Amazon been doing?  First, Amazon released a new iPhone app called Flow that allows iPhone users to see information about products in context.  Yes, its an augmented reality app that uses the phone's camera to view products, and overlays data about the products on the screen.  For the most part it requires the barcode to be visible to correctly identify the product, but I believe it can also recognize certain logos as well.  Download the app and try it out but don't expect perfection.  Its good enough to demonstrate the concept, but its far from accurate enough.  (MobileBeat did a pretty good review.)  Extrapolate to the future and we might just have a heads-up display in our eyeglasses.

The second interesting area is voice response, for which Siri is getting lots of attention.  Amazon may have purchased a voice recognition company called Yap, although the deal is not confirmed.  But it would make perfect sense, especially with the Kindle Fire in Amazon's lineup.

I believe over the next 3-5 years the way in which we interact with smartphones will mature, and they will become more transparent yet more important to our daily lives.  This will, of course, impact the way we shop, making information more readily accessible than it already is.  Amazon seems to be positioning itself to be at the forefront of this trend, so we should be watching them carefully.

Monday Oct 31, 2011

Self-Checkout at Apple Stores

Back in mid-2010 Apple launched their own iOS application to support their stores, but it was overshadowed by the release of the iPhone 4.  I finally downloaded the app, and it appears to be well-done (no surprise there).  Users can get detailed information about stores and products, and even buy some products via the app.  The app locates the nearest store where you can reserve products, make a genius bar appointment, arrange for training, or see the event schedule.

Now MacRumors is claiming the next version of the app will allow self-checkout in stores for items on the floor.  This makes lots of sense since the high-value items aren't stocked on the floor anyway.  If you'd like an iPad, you still need to talk to an associate, but if your just looking for a case or adapter, then grab one and check yourself out.

Now for the interesting part: self-checkout uses your iTunes account for payment.  I have been predicting that Apple will someday enter the payment field, and this seems like the start.  In theory, Apple could extend the ability to purchase items outside Apple using the iTunes account.  That might be particularly valuable once Apple adds an NFC chip to the iPhone.  Some big hurdles to overcome but still on the path.

Tuesday Oct 25, 2011

Shopping with Siri

Regardless of how sexy Apple and Google make smartphone user interfaces, they will always be limited by their screen size.  That is until you consider some of  the other capabilities of the smartphone, such as image and voice recognition.  Last year Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, announced our entry into the age of augmented humanity and the recent release of of the iPhone 4S has been an incredible example.

Using the Google app on my iPhone 4 (yeah, I'm not looking to upgrade yet), I can search using voice recognition.  For example, when I say "ASICS running shoes" a search is performed which renders lots of results, including where I can buy those shoes nearby.  And that brings up an important concept: the search is contextually aware.  It knew my location and was able to infer "nearby" in my request.

Amazon's Price Check app lets you search for product information by scanning the UPC, snapping a picture, or by saying the product using your iPhone.  Again, saying "ASICS running shoes" returned lots of matching products, albeit without any context.  How easy is that?

So not being one to be left behind, Apple bought a start-up (a spin-off from the Stanford Research Institute) called Siri and the rest is history the future. While Siri is not general purpose, I don't think the day when we have easy access to Watson and Wolfram Alpha is far off.

So what does this mean for retailers?  In the not-too-distant future you can expect to see shoppers asking their phones "is there a better price nearby?" and "what will this blouse look like on me?" and "is this compatible with the camera I bought last year?"  Product information will continue to be easier to access, be of better quality, and be personalized and contextual.  Here are three things retailers must do in order to remain competitive:

1. Make sure you are a trusted provider of information to your customers.  Share pricing, promotions, reviews, origin, content/ingredients, recalls, compatibility, etc. with your customers.  They are going to get this information anyway, so it might as well come from you.

2. You can't win on price anymore.  With perfect access to information, it will be too easy to find the lowest price for any particular item.  Its better to differentiate on convenience, service, and exclusivity.  (And its no accident that's Apple's model.)

3. Get serious about loyalty.  The younger generations are less concerned about privacy and more interested in relevancy.  Every interaction is a chance to provide personalized service.

In this age of augmented humanity, embrace Siri and don't be a HAL.

Tuesday Oct 11, 2011

Mobile Payment Videos

My friend Andrew Morris, who I work with at ARTS, recently sent an email listing the many videos showing the future of mobile payments.  I've selected a few to include here that represent where we're heading.

To get you in the right frame of mind, let's check with George Costanza first:

Here's a demonstration of Google Wallet using a Macy's POS register in the Google lab:

AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon formed Isis to advance NFC.  Here's their marketing video:

And here's PayPal's vision of where payments are going:

Andrew was recently on a panel at the ARTS User Conference, and had this to say afterward:

After our panel discussion in Orlando, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this issue – and my gut is that we’re starting to spend too much time talking about the inevitability of EMV/NFC and not enough time talking about the real business opportunity with regard to mobile payments and how retailers can either ‘take advantage’ or ‘be taken advantage of.’

Well said.

Tuesday Sep 13, 2011

Mobile POS Momentum in Retail

The idea of mobile POS isn't new.  Back at 360Commerce, we created a web-based mobile POS we called "Unleashed."  At the time, most mobile devices didn't have enough power to render the pages quickly, so it never really took off.  Home Depot deployed it on tablets attached to carts, but most retailers limited mobile devices to inventory processes.  Even Apple's first version of the mobile POS, deployed on Symbol devices running Windows CE, didn't garner much attention.  It wasn't until Infinite Peripherals, working with Apple, created the iPod sled that suddenly the concept caught fire.

I suppose there are a couple reasons mobile POS is now trending up.  First, nowadays many retailers have upgraded their in-store networks to support WiFi.  Retailers need a fast, reliable in-store network for mobile POS to work well.  Second, the cost of the iPod is significantly lower than traditional (hardened) handhelds.  They are cheap enough that when one breaks, nobody has to be fired.  Third, customers carrying smartphones increased the their expectations for mobile checkout.

Below I created a table of tier-1 deployments of mobile POS. The dates are approximate, based on news coverage I found on the Web.  I'm sure I missed some, but if I couldn't find a reliable date, then I skipped it.  I used the earliest date I could find.

 Date  Retailer  Notes
 11/2009  Apple  iPod
 12/2009  Home Depot  Motorola
 11/2010  Disney  iPod
 12/2010  Gap/Old Navy
 iPod
 01/2011  Guess  iPod
 03/2011  Urban Outfitters
 iPod
 06/2011  Nordstrom  iPod
 08/2011  Lowes  iPod

Now there are several software vendors writing mobile versions of the POS, usually on the iPod and iPad.  And the solutions range from tier-1 to Mom-and-Pop stores.  One has to wonder if Google, who purchased Motorola, will find a way to get in on the hardware business.  Or whether Microsoft will manage to get its operating system into mobile POS devices.  It just seems like the iPod has all the momentum right now.

Thursday Jul 14, 2011

My Favorite Mobile Payment App

My favorite mobile payment app comes from a start-up in Austin (the best place to live when its not summer).  Ever go to a bar or restaurant and have to wait forever for the check?  Then once you get the check, you have to wait for them to take your credit card which kills another 10 minutes?  (Those of you with Chip-and-PIN can skip that last step -- count your blessings.)  Well, Tabbedout (I'm not crazy about the name) has a solution for you.

When you first sit down, use the free Tabbedout application on your iPhone or Android phone to located the establishment via GPS.  Select it and a code is displayed that you show your waiter barmaid server.  That code syncs your phone and the POS so you can see any items added to your tab.  When you're ready to leave, simply add a tip and checkout using a pre-configured credit card.  No waiting.  No paper.  No mistakes.

The integration seems fairly simple, so multiple POS systems will work.  The trick is exposing POS transactions in a secure manner since the connection between the phone and the POS is over the internet.  The card number is actually encrypted and stored on your phone, requiring a passcode to access it.  That way Tabbedout never sees it nor does any of the restaurant staff.  Seems like a pretty secure approach to me.

This is another example of an everyday annoyance being solved in a way that benefits consumers and merchants.  I hope it catches on quickly.

Thursday Jul 07, 2011

NFC in Austin

Back in December in my predictions for 2011, I said this year will be the year when NFC pilots are launched in order to determine the winners for the coming years. There are at least 163 NFC projects in flight across the world at present, with a few big ones planned for the US.  As Randy Vanderhoof explains, there are really three major project in the US for NFC.  First, there's Google Wallet which will be piloted in New York and San Francisco and led by Google and Sprint.  Then there's Isis, which will be piloted in Austin and Salt Lake City and led by AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. Lastly is the approach using a microSD cards which is preferred by financial institutions such of Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

You can read more about the Google Wallet and see a video here.

You can read more about Isis in Austin and see another video here.

I'm sure these pilots will last well into 2012 before we can draw conclusions, but I'm really encouraged the industry is moving forward.  There are two benefits for retailers.  First, there are possibilities to innovate alongside the payments, with loyalty programs, coupons, etc.  Payments alone won't justify the hardware investments required to support NFC, so we'll need NFC to streamline several consumer interactions.

Second, there are potential players (like Paypal) that can offer alternative payment methods that create more competition in the space.  That competition may, in turn, lower processing fees for retailers and finally do away with paper checks.  So keep your eyes on these pilots.

 

Tuesday Jun 28, 2011

Virtual Grocery Store

Because South Korean's are so busy, Tesco decided that its Homeplus grocery chain should offer a virtual alternative in subways.  As you can see in the video below, shoppers passing through a subway station can see a virtual representation of the store and scan items with their mobile phones.  This builds a shopping list which is delivered to their homes later that day.

This is a very cool example of leveraging technology to offer a shopping experience that's different from bricks and clicks.

About


David Dorf, Sr Director Technology Strategy for Oracle Retail, shares news and ideas about the retail industry with a focus on innovation and emerging technologies.


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