The Internet of Things has crept up on consumers quietly. For all the talk of a “smart home” and “connected devices”, several IoT forces have been coming together to create services that have finally started to engage people.
However, many retailers have not thought of a way of being part of that engagement, instead concentrating on improving in-store experiences and mobile apps.
So, what’s happened to the world of IoT? It’s a speech technology wrapped inside a sleek table-top unit that has completely removed the complexity of engaging with smart devices. The best-known example of this new tech is Amazon’s Echo with the voice of ‘Alexa’, and now Google Home has entered the market, too.
Amazon launched Echo quietly over a year ago, and users warmed to the concept of just saying out loud what action they wanted to happen without searching for their phone and starting the appropriate app. Indeed, the technology is immediately available and accessible to anyone in the home with the device installed. Just say the ‘wake’ word then use your normal voice and natural way of speaking to interact.
Amazon has built a cloud-based app store for the Echo which it refers to as ‘Alexa Skills’. Google Home has their equivalent “Actions”. A Skill (or Action) is simply an app that is ‘installed’ into a user’s Amazon (or Google) account that links voice commands with back-end API services. Anyone who can author an iOS or Android app can also write an Alexa Skill and submit it to Amazon to include in their increasingly extensive collection. Many smart-device brands have already authored Skills to voice-activate lights, heating, and switch power sockets on and off. These Skills work against the same back-end systems that their apps do.
However, retailers have been slow to take up this opportunity. Many retailers already have mobile apps, whether they act as product catalogues or are wholly integrated e-commerce platforms connected to back-end systems. The cost of authoring a Skill is trivial since all the foundations are already in place, and early adopters will reap rewards of adoption and loyalty because the number of Skills is still tiny compared to the number of apps out there.
Retailers such as Tesco have already opened their service layer API, recently connecting to the “IF This Then That” (IFTTT) platform, and it’s time more stepped up to bring this functionality to their customers.
Wouldn’t it be great to ask Alexa for the nearest pub serving my favourite cider, or read the product name on a grocery product just as I throw the packaging away, “Alexa, ask <online grocer> to add my usual Baked Beans to my basket”. The cider brand and online grocer just need to write a Skill to work with the same back-end as their apps and let me know it’s available to ‘install’ in their next regular loyalty mailing to me.
Amazon Echo and Google Home are examples of voice-activated gateway devices that have become the go-to interface that the world of IoT needed to move into the mainstream. It’s time retailers stepped up and took advantage on behalf of their loyal customers.