It has become fashionable in recent times to announce the demise of many longstanding consumer commodities, such as cameras, petrol cars, television and landline telephones.
But this talk of extinction hides the far more exciting fact – what's happening is we are lucky enough to live during times of massive change as new technologies create new opportunities that simply weren't there before. Sometimes these entirely displace older technologies, and other times they live comfortably alongside them. But the growth and change are unprecedented.
Some of the most interesting changes occur when new technologies morph, adapt and combine with one another to revolutionise the human experience. An example is voice as an internet interface.
I recently bought a Google Home device – a USD$130 two-way speaker that sits in my kitchen and connects me to the internet. I bought it as a novelty, expecting it to last a few weeks and then end up in a cupboard alongside the juicer and the bread maker. However, it has turned out to be an incredible experience, unlocking the internet for my whole family.
We talk to her all the time. Calling this device 'her' doesn't feel odd as she has been designed to have a sense of humour and has deliberate built-in quirks and turns of phrases to make her endearing. By speaking to her, every member of my family (including my young daughters) can access any information that can be found online. Just before going out, we'll ask her if it's going to rain, or how long it'll take us to get to where we're going. We can play music. We can ask her to translate speech into a massive number of languages. We can order a taxi. We can settle arguments. We can set timers. We can search for information. We can get recipes for dinner. Whatever you can do online, we can do through voice using the artificial intelligence of Google Home.
This may not sound like much but my five-year-old daughters had previously never been online. They don't yet know how to type or how to navigate a browser. Now they don't have to. Voice as an interface is opening up the internet not just to children but to the elderly, to the partially sighted, to anybody who doesn't know how to or can't type.
We use Google Home for our shopping lists (whenever we run out of something we ask it to add the item to the list), and then when we're at the supermarket it is ready as a list on our phone. When Amazon launches in Australia later this year, even this will get simpler via Amazon's Alexa with the list just going straight to the Amazon store to purchase.
But why should you care about how the Rose family checks the traffic and does its shopping? Because voice as an interface represents a genuine disruption to the way consumers will be – actually already are – engaging with brands for recommendations or purchases. It mashes together word-of-mouth marketing and more traditional commerce.
Think about the difference from an on-screen Google search today, with three to four paid ads and five to six organic results appearing in response to your search. With voice and no screen, Google Home and Amazon's Alexa make a single recommendation.
And that recommendation carries real weight. In the case of Google currently and increasingly Amazon, it comes from a brand with which you engage almost hourly. I trust Google enough to host my emails, my private documents, my credit card details, my home address, place of work, friends and family's contact details. The level of faith consumers place in Google is evidenced by the fact that one of their major bets, autonomous vehicles, relies on passengers relinquishing pretty much any control and putting their lives in the hands of Google. If I want to know a decent Indian restaurant nearby, then why wouldn't I trust their recommendation?
This is clearly a fantastic opportunity if you can optimise your online presence to be the only recommendation that's made, and a massive threat if you don't.
So where do you start? My recommendation is to buy yourself a Google Home device online, then give it a go and see how it works. Next stop should be your media agency. Are they talking to you about this right now? If not, I suggest you prompt them. Or just ask Google.
- Ben Rose is the general manager of direct and partnerships at NIB New Zealand.