Give a Listen: It’s Conversational Commerce

by Russ Jones on October 20, 2011

in Apple, ECommerce, Innovation, iPhone, Mobile Commerce, Mobile Payments, Mobile Technology, Russ Jones, Technology

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Russ: “Siri, are you ready to help me buy something online?”

Siri: “Not yet, Russ, but I may be able to at some point.”

Not the answer I was hoping for, but at least Siri was honest about it!

Siri, of course, is the new voice-enabled personal assistant that comes with all of the new Apple iPhone 4S smartphones. You can talk with Siri—to ask it questions and give it commands—while you focus on something else. This Apple television commercial provides a nice demonstration of Siri’s capabilities.

Our particular interest in Siri here at Glenbrook is how this (or other) intelligent voice-aware agents might be enabled at some point to truly streamline how we buy stuff online. We think of it as “conversational commerce”.

It’s easy to imagine the possibilities for using Siri to:

  • Find the next Virgin America flight to Seattle, and book/buy an aisle seat
  • Find a specific product online, select the merchant based on availability and total cost out the door, buy it, and have it shipped to your house
  • Find when “Moneyball” is showing next at my neighborhood cinema, buy two tickets and deliver ’em to my phone

I certainly don’t need a personal assistant to tell me if I should wear a raincoat, but it would be great to have an assistant to go into town (virtually) and help do the shopping!

From Intelligent Agent to Humble Personal Assistant

The core technology behind Siri was developed by SRI International and spun out as a venture-backed startup in 2007. That company, Siri, developed a wide variety of connections to structured data sources that could be used by the Siri app on a smartphone. Early partners included OpenTable (to review and place restaurant reservations), Taxi Magic (for taxi reservations), WeatherBug (for weather data), and so on.

Apple purchased Siri in April 2010 and clearly went about rethinking how to better integrate its technology into the iPhone. Apple, of course, controls all of the core applications on the iPhone, and is in a much stronger position than Siri to seamlessly integrate the assistant into mail, calendar, contacts, etc.

Now that Apple has launched the technology on the iPhone 4S, the focus is on Siri as a “humble” personal assistant that can help with normal every day tasks. Here’s a sampling of the integration points and the sort of things that Siri can help with today:

  • Email – Email my sister about the trip
  • Maps and directions – How do I get home? And, what’s the traffic like?
  • Clock – Wake me up tomorrow at 7:00am
  • Reminders – Remind me to call Mom over the weekend
  • Messaging – Tell Susan I’m on my way
  • Calendar – Set up a meeting with Erin at 9:00am this Thursday
  • Address book – What’s Michael’s address?

TUAW (The Unofficial Apple Weblog) has a nice summary of all the integration points and tasks that Siri can currently complete.

Apple has not completely given up on those external data integrations. Siri still works with Yelp to find local points of interest (“Where’s a close Mexican restaurant?”) and WolframAlpha (“How many calories are in a bagel?”). When it needs to, Siri can take advantage of the iPhone’s geolocation data (with your permission, of course). There is also a nice interface to Wikipedia and to various search engines. In many cases, if Siri doesn’t know how to do something directly, it will try to find something online that tells you how to do it.

What makes Siri interesting, however, is that it can do more than just respond to voice-activated commands. It can infer what you want (to some degree) and have a dialog with you to clarify ambiguities and complete the task at hand. “I have a toothache” results in an external web search for dentists that are close to your current location. “I’m hungry”, for example, finds restaurants that are near by.

Moving Towards Conversational Commerce

The first thing that has to happen is that Apple has to open up Siri for integration with other apps on the phone. Right now, Siri is pretty locked down, and it’s officially still in beta. I’ve got to believe that over the next couple of iOS upgrade cycles, Apple might figure out how to open Siri up and expose the ability to initiate actions using some combination of objects and verbs. “Siri, have LinkedIn check my inbox for invitations.” That would be a good start.

Beyond that, there are still a lot of open questions and things that will need to be sorted out for Siri to help people buy things online. Here are a couple of thoughts I’ve been mulling over in my head:

  • Where’s the right point of integration? If there were Siri APIs would it be possible to access them remotely inside a mobile-optimized checkout flow or would they only be available to apps installed on the phone? I’m betting that local apps will be the way to go. I’m also thinking that Apple is going to have to figure out how to take itself out of the voice dialog between a commerce-enabled app and me. I don’t want anything I say about payment credentials passed in the clear, for example, or logged by Apple servers in the sky.
  • Payment credentials on file will be key. It’s hard to imagine conversational commerce ever being about voice entry of a card number, expiration date, and CVN. Rather, it needs to be about enabling the use of my payment details that are kept on file with trusted sellers or trusted wallet providers.
  • Voice biometrics could be important. Currently, unlocking payments data on file is usually done with a username and password. That’s going to have to change. Maybe the username can be replaced by my globally unique phone number and traditional password replaced by a spoken pass phrase. Voice biometrics might become useful for a purpose other than just enterprise password reset.
  • Amazon PassPhrase could be voice enabled. I’ve always liked the Amazon PassPhrase model and its use of the password to imply both a payment method and ship-to address. I have “Menlo Park” configured, for example, to tell Amazon to ship the item to Glenbrook headquarters in Menlo Park and use my corporate American Express card as the payment method. I’m sure Amazon has this patented six ways from Sunday, but I still like the notion. This might really be useful if the Amazon PassPhrase was also combined with voice biometrics.

So, here’s just one possible “end game” example for my vision of conversational commerce.

I want to get in my car, auto pair my phone with my internal car microphone and speakers, start driving down US 101 towards a client site, voice command Siri to come alive, ask it if there are two great seats still available together for tonight’s Giant’s game, interactively review the seats by location and price with Siri to find the seats I like, command it to purchase those two seats (using my preferred payment method stored in my digital wallet in the cloud) and deliver the tickets to my iPhone. Magical.

Wishful thinking? Share your thoughts in a comment below!

2 Responses to “Give a Listen: It’s Conversational Commerce”

  1. Wonderful post! Thank you! I’ve been thinking about how powerful the OS and browser position is for creating access points/APIs to the “Wallet App” that is on the phone. It’s going to be increasingly annoying if you can have the experience described above on mobile apps (in-app APIs will connect via OS layer as you mention) but then have to pull out your card on a new store what is an optimized mobile site only. I think browsers are going to have to have some type of extension that allows websites to use the local wallet capabilities as well. This means even e-commerce as we traditionally know it could change if the gatekeepers allow these integration points. (And browser wars/differences will continue!)

  2. Kevin Cox says:

    I suggest you concentrate on your driving not on getting tickets to a ball game.

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