by Jean-Louis Gassée
With its new ordering system of one-push buttons spread around the home, Amazon wants to simplify lives, theirs more than ours as we’ll find out. In doing so, we’ll face – again – still unresolved issues for the Consumer version of the Internet of Things.
Amazon has just announced yet another tentacle into our homes and wallet, the Dash Button:
The spirited Don’t Let Running Out Ruin Your Rhythm intro video gives a quick overview of the process: Affix a button near your stockpile of essential goods, push it when the cache runs low, go to the front door and pick up your delivery.
Unsurprisingly, wags have seized the opportunity to suggest a button that might be legal in Amazon’s home state and other enlightened places:
(From a comment on a Gizmodo post.)
As I’m in charge of laundry operations in our house, I went to the Amazon site, typed “Dash Button”, and was greeted with a series of enticing Get it by Monday April 6th offers such as this one for my favorite brand of detergent:
But, no… I clicked on the link and was sent to the Dash Button main page with its By Invitation Only message [emphasis mine]:
Picture the excited crowd behind the velvet rope, waiting for the opportunity to stick Dash Buttons on their washer/driers and coffee machines.
On the surface, the Dash Button makes sense. It’s the logical, Internet-of-Things extension of Amazon’s 1-Click ordering: Hang buttons on the objects that surround you and forestall the dreaded Running Out surprise. No complicated calculations, no need to leave your house. Just press the Dash Button when you stick the last ink cartridge in your printer, or when you see you’ll run out of diapers tomorrow. Peace of mind at your fingertips.
In practice, the process requires more mindfulness and skill.
The Dash Button connects to your home Wi-Fi router, set up via a dedicated smartphone app. In most cases, the person doing the setup will remember the Wi-Fi password. If not, the task will have to wait for the resident geek’s availability. Then there’s the matter of proximity. Does the Wi-Fi network reach your washer and dryer in the basement or garage?
Once you have the hardware set up, you return to the app to specify the replenishment quantity, and to decide whether or not you want Amazon to ignore subsequent Dash Button presses before the order arrives — a prophylactic against active toddlers, no doubt.
Everything’s ready. A tap on the button brings up a confirmation message on your phone with the opportunity to cancel the order in case you’ve changed your mind.
It sounds well thought-out… But why spread buttons around the house and go through an elaborate setup when you already have everything you need on your phone? Why not have an app that presents commonly-ordered items on its main page? When you see the bottom of the diaper drawer, you take out your phone, pull up the app, and click the Pampers button. You get an instant confirmation and you’re done.
No Wi-Fi set up; no worry about accidental “elbow ordering” as you unload the dryer; no besmirching your pristine appliances with branded, phosphorescent buttons (a strongly worded injunction from my high-end home-builder spouse). You don’t even have to be at home: You can order from anywhere, just as you do now.
I’m not the only person asking this question. As I was writing this note, I saw this Steven Sinofsky tweet:
Indeed, Sinofsky’s watch idea goes Amazon one better, and it plays to Apple’s central pitch: No need to whip out your smartphone.
Others, my son-in-law Christian Baxter included, have demonstrated how to build proof-of-concepts apps such as The Anything Button that make abundantly clear how you just need a smartphone, nothing else, for pre-programmed actions. There’s also the ingenious Pressy Button for Android phones.
Amazon is recognized as a sophisticated, long-term thinker. Is there more to the Dash Button than the added complications that we’re seeing? Possibly… but let’s remember that this is the company that came up with the “what were they thinking?” Fire smartphone. (See The Real Story Behind Jeff Bezos’ Fire Phone Debacle And What It Means For Amazon’s Future, in Fast Company magazine.)
“Amazon is in fact organized not just in these segments, but in dozens and dozens of separate teams, each with their own internal P&L and a high degree of autonomy.”
This autonomy might be a well-calculated attempt to encourage experimentation, to provide a harbor for projects that would be impossible in a centralized command-and-control organization. A well-run, data-rich failure could calibrate the aim that leads to the next bull’s eye… or it could just be someone’s poorly thought-out vanity project. And/or an attempt to extract product placement or slotting fees for brands prominently featured on the Dash Buttons.
This led me to thinking about the nearly-forgotten Amazon Echo:
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled, the Echo provides access to an intelligent, always-listening agent called Alexa, a sort of Apple Siri or Microsoft Cortana. Alexa plays your music on demand and gives you the latest news and weather… To replenish my stash of Tide, why can’t I just ask Alexa to do the job? I’ll report back when I get my Dash Button and an Echo. (Announced last November as a “work-in-progress” the Echo is, to this day, available by invitation only. )
The Dash Button’s needless complications and the Echo’s tepid reviews (and privacy issues…would you want an “always-listening” agent in your kitchen, living room or bedroom?) are indications of the long difficult birth of the Internet of Things – in the Consumer space.
For industrial applications, the Internet of Things is already a reality. Teams of technicians install, extend, and maintain the complex array of “always-listening”, far-reaching devices that control the factory, gas refinery, or a server farm. This is what Cisco, IBM, and many others do for their customers, a continuation of their work in Enterprise applications.
Consumer instances of the Internet of Things are different. The setup and maintenance of an array of Internet objects in the home requires consumers to be their own IT support technicians. The home version of the Internet of Things assumes the ability to internalize and maintain a mental model of the network’s functions and exceptions. For non-geeks, this is an unnatural act.
Amazon’s own techies might be experiencing a failure of empathy:
(From a now disappeared Mike Monteiro post.)
Someone, someday will make the Internet of Things work for The Rest of Us. That we still struggle with a Basket of Remotes shows how far we are from the goal.