Wednesday, April 01, 2015

So Amazon fired a warning shot at supermarkets and everyone went April Fool?

By now you'll have heard of Amazon's "Dash" button. Is it an April Fool? Let's hope so if you're a supermarket but in all likelihood ... nope. It's a bell tolling for your future demise (except those who can carve out a specialist niche).

To show where Amazon Dash might go, this video of mine from 2008 is of a physical book interacting with a computer using early stage printed resistive connectors combined with some physical electronics. Even back then, in a research setting it was possible to get close to going fully printed on the electronics. Do not underestimate what is possible today, 7 years later.

So, what's the big deal with Dash? In all likelihood it's a field test. To test out the concept with consumers, get them educated and used to the idea of ordering by pressing a button and interacting with a physical product. That button will be connected to your phone or some future home IoT device. 

But can it make money? You're missing the point. It's a field test to what comes next. An Amazon "buy" button on every product i.e. every packet of cereal etc. It might be something you press or even something you just look at in the future (a mix of AR and printed active RFID).

But surely that would be too costly? Oh, come on. You don't think Bezos bought the Washington Post because of its journalistic merits do you? If you're going to stick a "buy" button on every packet of cereals or whatever then the button and part of the electronics will have to be printed by mass production techniques. I did warn over a decade ago that those big printing presses that companies were outsourcing and flogging off cheap on the advice of "strategic" consultants are the Intel's of tomorrow. You were mugged and you paid someone else to mug you.

But you can't use big smelly old printing presses for electronics! Hmmm, go talk to the wonderful Dr Kate Stone. If you don't know what Kate has been upto ... watch this and go "wow, I didn't realise".

Audi TT brochure hack from ProjectGallery on Vimeo.

But the supermarkets (Walmart, Tesco etc) will just be able to do the same if the "buy" button becomes successful!

Sure, they could if they had good situational awareness but they don't and hence they won't react until it is too late. The problem is the same old thing - a punctuated equilibrium combined with inertia. Kodak and Blockbuster weren't taken out by a lack of innovation, they out innovated their competitors - first with video on demand online, first with digital still cameras etc. It was inertia caused by existing business models (e.g. shops) that caused their decline compounded by a double whammy of investing in the wrong thing.

I know we have endless charlatans claiming that you need a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) or you won't innovate and you'll end up being like Kodak and Blockbuster. There are reasons for a CDO but it's not this. Lack of innovation isn't the problem. You're being mugged again. You're probably paying for the privilege.

The Achilles heel (a major point of inertia) of supermarkets is product placements on shelves in their shops. They make a great deal of money from this and it gives them power with suppliers. The idea of putting a buy button on every product would undermine the supermarket's power relationship. So, they'll have internal conflict and push back on the idea. Unfortunately for them, data will reinforce this as a wise choice. Why?

To understand why, you need to realise that a punctuated equilibrium is an exponential change. The network effects / 2 factor market that'll develop around "Dash" will create this. What this means, is that 10 years after the printed electronic button versions are released then only about 3% of products will have an Amazon "buy button" embedded in the packaging. There'll be posters with a buy button and all sorts of other useful marketing tricks. But the supermarkets will scoff at the "buy" button, dismiss it as a gimmick, point to the revenue they make from product placements and be lulled into thinking they have plenty of time. Alas, five years later it'll be around 40-50% of products. The game is over. 

Bye bye supermarkets that haven't carved out a very specific niche. Things will get tough and you could have prevented it. You won't though.

Roughly speculating ...

2015: field test starts.

near 2020: Amazon printed electronic "buy" button appears on packaging. Dismissed by supermarkets as a gimmick. Stores refuse products with the "buy" button, pressure applied to major product suppliers not to use it. Wall Street asks why Bezos is doing this. Lots of analysts dismiss it.

near 2030: Amazon printed "buy" button on an estimated 3% of all products. Posters and other marketing forms (e.g. brochures with a printed buy button) exist. Amazon still won't be revealing revenue figures (those created will be buried under SFAS131 reporting limit). Most supermarkets will refuse to stock product with the "buy" button and even talk about providing their own "buy" button in the future. Some internal questioning will exist but inertia to change will be stronger supported by figures showing a healthy revenue from product placement. There will be some pressure mounting from product suppliers. Analysts talk about "buy" button having a long term future in a "click and brick" model and how supermarkets will dominate.

near 2032: A consortium of supermarkets announce their plan to build a "buy" button capability launching some time around 2034.

near 2035: Amazon printed "buy" button on 50% of all products. Supermarket launched "buy" button fails to make any impact. Supermarkets forced to stock product with the Amazon "buy" button. Several supermarkets in danger of failing, a few have found niche markets. Majority of ordering of product now done through buy button not in the store. Revenues from product placement (shelves) plummets. Supermarkets are too late to the market to create a viable alternative model.

near 2037 game over.

Pray this is an April fool. 

Oh, and this will also change the IoT game by allowing a very neat ecosystem play to happen. Another post, another day. Not convinced companies should be dropping $3 Billion on that space without knowing what is coming.

Why pray? Well, if this speculation holds in terms of timing then this is the fourth piece of evidence to suggest the underlying cycle of change (from genesis to the point of industrialisation) accelerated post internet not to 30 - 50 years but even faster to 20 - 30 years. This has all sorts of knock on ramifications. The jury is still out on that one though.

On the subject of timing, if this is close to the point where industrialisation starts then I'd guess 3 to 5 years for printed version and industrialisation itself takes on average 10-15 years for it to work its course and reach 40-50% of the market. Add another two years for the fall-out to reach its peak and you could be talking 2030 instead of 2037.

Will this happen? No idea, It's speculation. It's extremely difficult to predict the actions of individual actors without continuous observation of gameplay and use of weak signals against a single opponent. In any case, don't dismiss Amazon's "Dash" button. It's probably not a joke but a serious play.

Update 1st April - On marketing genius

Dropping this little gem just before April Fool is pure marketing genius - create some noise, add a bit of misdirection and if (as I suspect) this is a field test before a printed version is launched then you've just given all those within your targets the ammo to declare it as a gimmick and to dismiss it. The deceptively slow exponential growth of the punctuated equilibrium combined with inertia will just be reinforced by this. They'll deny it as a threat right upto the point that it'll be too late to react. If right then this is lovely gameplay. Couldn't do better myself. Hats off to Bezos.

For those struggling with this concept. The easy way to think about this is that the supermarket of the future is your home, it's your friends home, it's the street you walk down, it's the office you work in, it's all around you. Anything not on the 'shelf' that continuously surrounds you and is available with one click for home delivery can be perused and bought online. See something you like, click the button.

Supermarkets will be an antiquated concepts faster than you realise or any supermarket expects.

Update 1st April - On inertia and gameplay

Lots of confusion on what can be done about this. 


No amount of innovation by a retailer / supermarket (any large chain who stores and shifts common product through shops) will save them because this is NOT the problem. The problem is the inertia caused by revenue and supplier power created through product placement (i.e. shelving). Any action to change this will be resisted internally by the company. Even if a CEO took the steps to change this then the financial markets would punish them because the impact it would have short term on the P&L. Everything is stacked up against retail stores / supermarkets acting until it's too late (i.e. it is so obvious and overcomes past data that reinforces the existing model). 

The ONLY way to prevent this is for a strong CEO to ignore the market and internal inertia (forcing a change) or for the company to be taken private or for the company to focus on some niches. The whole era of product placement on shelving has just been earmarked for destruction. Suppliers hate the games supermarket's have played with this. It's over. It's just a question of time for the full play to emerge and the punctuated equilibrium to take its course. 

If you work in this space then of course you'll dismiss this and won't believe it'll happen. Doubly so if you have bonuses or any incentive related to product placement. Triply so if you'll be retired before the fall out hits. That's perfectly normal. You're an essential cog in the destruction of the company.

The future of the "Shelf" (as in the traditional supermarket shelf) is in the dustbin of history bar some small niches that'll exist and flourish (in much the same way that small specialist bookstores have flourished through Amazon). This game has been played many times before in many industries. You are duly warned. If this is real, it's over. Just add time.

Oh, and Amazon will allow device manufacturers to include the button in their product. Please go read "Sensor as a Service" if you don't know what this really means. They will replay the same ecosystem game in the physical world as the digital. Going off and dropping $3 billion+ on IoT platform plays or trying to create standard IoT platforms isn't going to help you here.

The all encompassing IoT platform play is going to get its guts ripped out by sensor as a service plays used to build platforms based upon components and exploitation of ecosystem to sense future success. This is where the real battle is. Those "standard" platform plays are just a combination of "strategic" consultants plus mugging. I hope you didn't pay much for it ... I'll guess you did.

This is 2015, this is basic gameplay people. You should know this stuff by now. You've had a decade to learn these games.

Update 2nd April 2015 - On Design

I've been asked do you need to replicate the whole Amazon "Dash" button in a printed form for a cereal packet?


You could use some form of passive RFID with a capacitance based printed button to do the trick in range of a phone. The tech to print this at scale has existed for some time. You should think of "Dash" as a field test, a mechanism of educating the public and getting people used to the concept of pressing a button to order a product. Any printed version doesn't have to operate in exactly the same way.

Obviously "Dash" can lead to a sensor as a service play and already it has been announced it'll be embedded in other companies products. That's just part of the gameplay that is possible here though.

Update 10th April 2015 - Being an Idiot.

I forget how many times I've been called an idiot, ridiculous, absurd etc.

3D printing of physical forms and electronics (1998) - "idiot, that'll never happen". 
The mobile phone replacing the camera (2001) - "idiot, that'll never happen". 
Shift towards utility computing and platform services (2005) - "idiot, that'll never happen".
Collision of digital and physical and the creation of new languages which compiles down to both (2006) - "idiot, that'll never happen".

I've a long long history of being called this and I like it. The name calling tells me that a concept causes a reaction. So, I'll play the idiot card. 

When I see something I like,  I don't want to get out a phone, unlock it, find the app, speak to it or point the camera at some barcode, press confirm, choose from a selection of alternatives ... yada yada.

I like my life simple. If I see something that I like and I have that impulse, it always makes sense to me to make that process of buying as frictionless as possible. Touch the Amazon sticker on the object I desire and everything else is taken care of? That's my sort of idiot world.

Update 10th April - Everyone is a Salesperson

Expect Amazon to make it frictionless i.e. touch the discrete Amazon logo on the product - the label of the super looking jacket that someone else is wearing, the cool phone your friend is using, the cereal packet that's just run out, the neighbours very nice tasting bottle of wine you're having over dinner -  it orders and delivers with "intelligence" working out if this order is within the bounds of normal behaviour for you ... otherwise a confirmation request will be sent.

Think of the entire world as one big supermarket shelf and how odd it would seem to go to a "supermarket" with limited shelf space. Of course, there'll be lots more specialist shops to browse. The niches will do very well and Dash will provide an even better way of spreading their product.

The shopping experience of tomorrow is more like ...

"Oh, that shirt is fantastic! Where did you buy it from?"

"Can't remember. It was this tiny shop in Manchester making these specialised designs. But, it's ok ... you can touch the label"

"Thanks" ... [a correctly sized shirt now is flying through the supply chain on the way to my home]

"You know I get a 5% commission every time someone touches the label?"

"Really? When did that happen?"

"All the new products do, the Amazon dash labels know who the owner is. Everyone is unconsciously a salesperson for everything they own."

Will this happen? No idea but I'd be scenario planning what you're going to do if this stuff starts happening. You'll need to be well armed beforehand i.e. no point turning up to the battle unprepared. Naturally, nearly every company will turn up to the battle totally unprepared and the normal Epic Fails of Sensible Executives will happen.

There's all sorts of combination effects in the future (as always). Chances are when you press the label in some future world the design will automatically transform your clothing. Does that sounds crazy? Of course it does but the crazy ideas are where the real value is.