Google wins first round in the battle for the living room

Smart speakers were only about developing a new dynamic in the relationship between the OTTs and the consumer, and Walmart’s new ‘Voice Order’ feature is a taste of things to come.

The new initiative from Walmart is perfect for the Google smart speaker ecosystem, as it plays to the strengths of the internet giant. By simply saying ‘Hey Google, talk to Walmart’ consumers will be able to use their voice to build shopping lists with the grocery mammoth, using any device which has the Google Assistant installed on it.

“With the new voice ordering capabilities we’re building across platforms with partners like Google, we’re helping customers simply say the word to have Walmart help them shop … literally,” said Tom Ward, SVP of Digital Operations at Walmart US.

Of course, the application will not be perfect to start with, but as with anything intelligence related it can be trained and personalised to each individual. At the beginning, users will have to specify what products to put into the cart, but soon enough the virtual assistant will remember these purchases. Saying ‘milk’ won’t put any brand or product into the cart, but the one you bought last time.

This is the futuristic world Silicon Valley had in mind when it started rolling smart speakers out to the world, and we imagine it won’t be too long before the innovation starts catching on.

Although some might suggest Google and Amazon have ambitions to disrupt the audio industry with the launch of their own smart speakers, this was most likely a ploy to drive user acceptance and demonstrate to the mainstream brands there is consumer appetite. If you actually look at the products which Google and Amazon have been championing, they would not compete with the calibre which could be manufactured by the likes of Bose or Bang & Olufsen, but it did start to get consumers using smart speakers.

Google and Amazon are the top-sellers of smart speakers across the world, with Amazon claiming to have now sold more than 100 million products, but the traditional audio giants are starting to release their own products. Sonos is releasing models, so is Samsung. But the traditional audio brands do not have the software smarts to create their own virtual assistants, this is where the likes of Google and Amazon come in.

Sooner or later, smart speakers will be the norm, with the internet giants battling for access to the consumer. A walled garden business model can be created, with the virtual assistant monetizing relationships between the consumer and a third-party. This creates a new dynamic between the consumer and Silicon Valley, offering more opportunities for the internet giants to sell to third-parties, and it looks like Google has won round one in the fight for control of the living room.

Walmart has said other assistants will be available to place orders before too long, but Google was selected as the first partner. This could mean one of two things. Firstly, Google nailed the partnership, commercial elements and technical issues to all for such a feature to be introduced. Then again, it could have paid for the right to be first.

Perhaps it should come as little surprise Google has won the first round here. While Amazon fortunes emerged from hosting an online marketplace and creating a dominant public cloud platform, this sort of feature is true to Google heritage. The Google dominance was created through software, intelligent algorithms and monetizing third-party relationships online. This is nothing more than an extension of this expertise onto a new user interface.

Whichever the case, it is largely irrelevant. Google is now ahead of Amazon when it comes to monetizing the voice user interface. This is a big step forward for the digital economy, and while it might be early days, it does give an indication of the futuristic world we are hurtling towards. With more ‘intelligent’ devices emerging, Google and Amazon could be set to become a lot more powerful and influential.

Instagram’s garden is starting to blossom

Just as Facebook’s core platform is beginning to wilt, Instagram is launching an assault on the shopping market built on the walled garden business model which bloomed in by-gone years.

A few people might have scoffed at Facebook handing over $1 billion for Instagram in 2012, but this acquisition is looking to be a clever bit of business. Facebook’s core social media platform, and the business model which underpins it, might be looking a bit jaded after recent attacks, but Instagram is maturing into a very attractive proposition.

Launched today (March 19), users can now purchase products from certain brands in the Instagram app. The team has been working hard to create a marketplace in Instagram over the last 12-18 months, and while the digital advertising model has been paying off, you get the impression the narcissistic tendencies of the app lend itself well to the online shopping arena, especially when it comes to fashion.

“When you tap to view a product from a brand’s shopping post, you’ll see a ‘Checkout on Instagram’ button on the product page,” the team said in a blog post. “Tap it to select from various options such as size or color, then you’ll proceed to payment without leaving Instagram. You’ll only need to enter your name, email, billing information and shipping address the first time you check out.”

For retailers, this could be a very interesting route to potential customers, both old and new. Instagram has proven to be a very effective tool for brands to engage consumers from a brand marketing perspective, but in terms of direct sales, the risk of navigating to another website comes with shopping carts being abandoned. Through in-app purchases, one purchasing hurdle is removed, simplifying the buying process.

Customer information will be stored with Instagram, and while it has been reported the details will not be pre-populated in other Facebook platforms, it would not surprise us if this is in the pipeline. Instagram will receive payments as a percentage of the total spent in-app, though in Facebook’s typically transparent fashion, the waters have been muddied with the team not revealing how much this percentage is.

This is perhaps another perfect example of Facebook’s ability to create a walled garden and charge third-parties to access the cultivated digital customers.

For years, Instagram has been creating an incredibly user-orientated platform, which is simple but very usable and addictive. The only way for users to access these users, to try and pry open wallets, is to strike a deal with Facebook. Facebook is not monetizing its users directly but charging third-parties entry at the gate. This model worked incredibly well for years, putting Facebook is the dominant and influential position it is in today.

The beauty of this plan is that Facebook/Instagram seems to have struck at the right time. Users are becoming increasingly used to using the app as an online catalogue, geared around window shopping not purchases. Another update launched last year, allows users to click on products which might features in posts or stories to see more information. Taking it one step further is a logical step, as long as its not done too aggressively.

While the raw materials are certainly there, the challenge which Instagram will face is not to over commercialise the platform. This is what happened with Facebook’s core social media platform, the focus was less on engagement and more on advertising revenues, resulting in the new generation ignoring and traditional users spending less time on it. If Instagram has learned from prior mistakes, this could be a very interesting proposition, with plenty of room for growth.

That said, learning from mistakes is one thing but keeping under-pressure executives in-line is another. Slowing growth figures have put the Facebook management team under pressure from investors, while scrutiny placed on the traditional business model in ever-increasing. New regulations to remove some of the freedoms granted in the data-sharing economy put profits under threat, and as with any other publicly traded company, they will have to be replenished somehow.

Recent attempts to carve out new revenue streams, such as Watch or Today In, have seemingly not produced the hoped-for bonanzas. In the case of news app Today In, the team is ironically struggling because Facebook and Google effectively destroyed the commercial viability of so many regional news sources. The ‘locusts are complaining there is no more corn’ one Twitter user commented.

Another development which is worth keeping an eye on is the change in management. After 14 years working for Facebook and Instagram, Chief Product Officer Chris Cox announced he was leaving last week. A replacement has not been announced, but the experience of this individual might give some insight as to how aggressively commercial elements of Instagram will appear.

Despite criticisms which might be directed towards Facebook and Instagram, this looks to be an excellent strategy. The team have been cultivating this audience for some time and seem to have created the perfect conditions for growth… just as long as the team learn from previous mistakes.