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As Amazon Echo heads to Europe, its push to become the primary touchpoint for commerce quickens

Amazon’s artificial intelligence-powered Echo speakers are coming to Europe this Autumn, quickening its attempts to bring about a screenless future that the likes of Sky and Just-Eat are already working with it to monetise.

The company revealed its worst kept secret earlier today (14 September) when it finally shared the launch of the much-anticipated device at the end of the month (28 September). Amid all the fanfare over how both the Echo speakers and the Alexa virtual assistant powering it will expedite the arrival of a post-hardware, post-app future, it was clear that Amazon will stick to what it does best – creating marketplaces.

Similar to how Amazon has changed the way people buy, Echo is being pitched to brands as a touchpoint that can spur a new generation of bespoke concierge services. David Limp, the company’s senior vice president of devices, predicts a slew of brand-backed voice activated services that will enter into the marketplace, each with their own utilities, effectively turning it into a media platform.

But the movement towards zero user interface is much more disruptive than redistributing media budget - it’s more likely to destroy it in some places,” reasoned Cameron Worth, founder of internet of things agency SharpEnd. “Building brand equity through services is the main reason SharpEnd exists and we think that consumers will love a brand more if they can access services relevant to them on the platforms they choose. It’s not about messaging anymore, it’s about brands behaving better and becoming more useful.”

There was web, then there were native apps and now there’s an opportunity to build service-delivery bots for the Amazon Echo (called Skills). Imagine, cooking your dinner and you realise you forgot to get the dishwasher detergent that your wife asked you before you left for work. What if you could just ask “Alexa” to order the detergent by simply using your voice. You don’t have to turn on your laptop, or go to your mobile, look up the item and checkout.

It’s easy to see why brands like the Guardian, Sky Sports, Just-Eat and several more were quick to jump on the Echo beta trial. Alexa is getting smarter every second, promised Limp. “She’s great at all sorts of skills whether its weather, news, geography, sports, music, jokes and a lot more.”

That’s the vision Amazon is pitching to advertisers and the one that will inevitably compete against Google’s very own play for the connected space. Different companies are good for different things and Amazon is much better at delivering goods than either Google or Apple. For example, a person’s washing machine has broken down but what if the manufacturer’s customer service was integrated with the Echo API? Alexa has access to calendar, address and mobile number data so it is not too far-fetched to envisage someone asking Alexa to schedule a service appointment with a local authorized repairman via their voice.

Little wonder then why commerce is the focus for Echo’s pitch to brands (rightly or wrongly) in the early days. A demo at the event showed how seamless this could be when one executive ordered sushi from Just-Eat, with the virtual assistant going so far as to remember the previous order place he bought sushi from before waiting to be told to complete the transaction.

“There’s a lot of friction involved in the smart home today,” said Limp. “But fast forward to the world where the smart home is controlled by your voice, by Alexa and Echo and you will see it as delightful. All you have to do is say ‘Alexa turn on the lights’ and it happens. We see this time and time again. It’s not just [being used by] serious smart aficionados. It’s hobbyists planning to make raspberry pies and people doing plug and play DIY products.”

Such is the importance of getting a bustling marketplace around Echo that Limp wasted little time praising the early success of the Echo speakers on its developers, who amount to around 1,000 worldwide. That kind of manpower is indicative of the company’s determination to dominate artificial intelligence computing and cloud computing, of which it had a dominant 31 per cent market share during the first quarter of 2016, according to Synergy Research Group.

Never mind that its merciless discounting on hardware in the past has seen it can more repeat custom for its online marketplace, something it could be set to repeat judging by the £50 pre-order discount is offering Prime members. While selling hardware at cost is tried and tested at Amazon, the company has been keen to stress that it’s the speed at which Echo’s eco-system of services has spread as to why Amazon thinks it could sell as many as 10m speakers by the end of next year.

The “reason its [Echo] is growing so fast is due to the hard work by developers,” said Limp before talking up how easy the device is to program. Rather than have to code for a natural language interface, developers can go about building a service as if they were doing it for any other application, which is then handed over to Amazon’s team to do the conversion, he claimed.

As voice becomes a new medium for connecting brand and consumer, Steven Moy, chief executive at Isobar asked “can Amazon Echo become the new radio channel for advertisers?

“With carefully connected data to understand your consumer’s intent and context, it is absolutely possible to tailor a personalized voice brand communication at the right moment,” he continued.

“Similar to VR, many media owners have toyed around if VR could be a content distribution platform for advertisers. Can Amazon Echo be the new VR as a content distribution channel? Media owners should explore how a voice platform can create new possibilities to distribute branded content to consumers. And make the bold move to create a prototype on the new platform, test, learn and repeat. Then do it faster and better than your competitors.”

Smartphones probably aren’t going anywhere any time soon but they might stop being the primary point of interaction in some instances as voice user interface takes hold.

That said, Possible’s head of user experience Ben Bashford thinks it’s wrong to think of voice as a “replacement” to phone/tablet/PC based graphical user interface. it’s “just a single facet of the way we’ll be able to interact with networked products and services in the near future,” he argued.

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