Shopping in the Cloud

Are we truly ready for the future of shopping?

If there’s a magic phrase to catch the attention of an American, it’s “New and Improved!"

Our societal fixation upon novelty expresses itself as a collective obsession with emerging technologies: the new, the different, the burgeoning benefits that can be derived from them – each new piece of hardware or new software development, a new opportunity.

The cycle of deployment of new things into our grab-basket of goodies seems to take less and less time as our technology base gets more complex.  Recent months have seen the introduction of some amazing new products which will influence us for many years.  The first is Amazon’s Alexa "verbal assistant" which is dominating its innovative field; the other is a type of cloud computing that has been attempted before, but this time it may succeed.

Earth-shaking innovations are hardly ever recognized for their importance until much later, but to your humble correspondent, these look like the same kind of epochal development that the retrieval of rocket boosters landmarked earlier this year.

Alexa is a growing phenomenon dominating its new segment of electronic gadgetry, a new class of device and a new class of capability.

“Alexa” is actually the voice of an artificial-intelligence assistant which dwells on Amazon’s “Echo” devices which acts as an interface between customers and the Amazon world of goods and services. When a customer addresses an Echo device, “Alexa…” the polite response queries the user to explain his purchase needs and guides him through the process of obtaining a Kindle e-book or a table saw - all in a quiet, not-quite-unctuous tone.

Heretofore, marketing and advertising have been accomplished with commercials and purpose-made videos to explain the virtues of the product being investigated. In-person visits to stores encounter carefully crafted zones that represent phases of the purchase cycle and pull you through them as briskly and conclusively as possible. The psychology and presentation of products has been studied for decades, and the techniques to attract customers and to get them to consider buying a product are what both retail stores and online presentations are designed to do.

Instead, with Alexa, purchasers simply speak their desires to an automated guide that goes out and obtains them - a new and critical wrinkle in the entire process.

As consumers, we have no experience with something like that. We are used to dealing with a purchasing cycle that includes the touch, feel, scent, or at the very least, the visual impression that a product makes. US businesses have spent more than a century developing means of communicating these aspects of a product so that consumers can make choices, and the choices that consumers make have been the subjects of marketing studies going back to before there were people who knew what “marketing” was.

This is where it stops, now: all previous options are gone. Touch and feel are memories, scent and visual impressions are confined to areas of the brain. They are no longer present and active at the time of money changing hands - a moment that has been enshrined in ceremony since the time of the first monetary transaction, maybe dating back to the monkeys.

With the increase of technology and consumers’ increasing comfort with the world of the virtual, the Amazon-model new purchase cycle may have been inevitable even if unforeseen.  This day’s big Kahuna, though, was the revelation of a development that we all knew, deep down, was coming, in the form of a start-up company’s fresh take on computer use. This company, Blade, envisions interaction between user and software which is machine independent – a computer application suite which can be maintained from desktop to iPhone to laptop to tablet to whatever else is next.

Blade’s offering provides games, but it also does spreadsheets, word processing, database management, CAD drawings, music composition, blogging, and every other computer application now extant – in theory, anyway. We have yet to see a working model, but one is promised soon.

Imagine the possibilities: software which performs the processes that we all need to use resides on a cloud accessible by all the devices that we use for computing, no matter they type, size, location, or manufacturer. From our smartwatch to our office desktop, all will communicate with the same software and data.

Leaving my desk and desktop, I could continue writing this paragraph with my iPhone at the restaurant where a group of us will meet to discuss the Specifications for a building project under construction in Tampa and another planned for Orlando. The project manager for each of those projects would have access to all his design work for presentation to the other team members on his tablet computer to share over lunch with other team members who have laptops or tablets as they prefer. The discussion might range from design decisions using CAD to budgeted hours using spreadsheets to cost estimating using proprietary software – all shared between devices and locations.

For all its promise, this is a technology that is fraught with difficulty, having been tried and failed many times. Some of the big names in computing have taken aim at this type of technology in the past, and all have suffered defeat. Maybe Blade will have what it takes.

Today’s solution is that these tasks can be done on disparate computing platforms (machines plus software), but the software doesn’t interact with other forms of computing, and the data resides in different machines. Blade’s new method resolves these issues and brings forth a seamless set of problem solvers.

The reason that the computer distributing process is the big Kahuna is that, when working properly, it will become integral to people’s lives in ways which a new method of purchasing merchandise or solving problems never can: picture Capt. Kirk or Spock strolling through the bridge of the Enterprise, uttering command decisions as they move.

This will not happen immediately, but will come on gradually, piecemeal, as needs require, and then spread as do most evolutionary/revolutionary changes.  Yet three things have occurred already in 2018 which make this writer thrill at the possibilities: Voice Assisted Consumerism®, Cross-Platform Computing®, and low cost space travel. Your writer just became the owner of those first two terms because he knows where to find the registration symbol; alas, Elon Musk holds the marketing rights to all the space stuff.

Our imaginations are piqued with the possibilities, but one question remains: every silver lining comes with a cloud, so what annoying or civilization-crippling weakness will these innovations present to us?  Let’s hope it is as low-impact as the one Corienne Pretorius discovered:

Parrot shows he’s a clever boy by ordering Amazon gift boxes with voice-controlled gadget Alexa

The African grey called Buddy shocked owner Corienne Pretorius when she realised the only culprit for a mystery order was the five-year-old bird.

Thomas Anderson is a multi-state registered architect and an ex-Air Force electronic technician, who is a keen observer of the human condition.  Read other articles by Thomas Anderson or other articles on Society.
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