The internet of things – The Economist
THE expression “at the touch of a button” connotes speed and immediacy. Amazon is taking the phrase literally. This week the e-commerce firm announced a programme that offers members of its Prime scheme branded, wireless-connected buttons, which they can place around their home and press when they are running low on certain household items. Doing so initiates an order to replenish whatever is needed, from detergent to bottled water, and the order is shipped to the customer’s home.
Is the habit of sitting down at a computer to shop online becoming passé? Whether or not Amazon’s “Dash” buttons appeal to mainstream consumers remains to be seen, but the initiative points to two important retail and technology trends.
First, more companies are pushing into e-commerce and trying to expand what people buy online. Google offers an e-commerce service in seven American cities, including San Francisco, where people can order anything and have it delivered within the same day. It cannot be profitable, and Google has been vague about whether it could turn into a real business. But at the very least the programme brings more people onto Google’s platform (including its payment service, Google Wallet) and enables them to learn more about consumer behaviour. In Los Angeles, Uber, a popular taxi-hailing company, offers lunch and dinner delivery, and in certain cities lets people hire errand-runners who can bike items from place to place. It is not hard to imagine Uber expanding its platform to include delivery of groceries or other items.
Second, the “internet of things”, which involves adding sensors to everyday items, is becoming more of a reality. This enables “smart” devices, such as alarms, heating systems and coffee machines, to store data and communicate with one another. With its new smart buttons, Amazon is pushing into the home in a fairly subtle way. It has bigger plans. Some manufacturers are trying to develop products, from washing machines to water filters, which can sense when a consumer is running low and automatically place an order (through Amazon), without needing so much as a pressed button. Separately, IBM has announced a $3 billion investment to create an “internet of things” unit that will, among other things, try to track all the data cast off by devices. Until now most of the “internet of things” has seemed as fantastical as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence in “Fantasia” (or maybe “Beauty and the Beast”, when forks, knives and clocks come alive and sing when no one is watching). That is starting to change.