Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Amazon just got even more terrifying

Amazon is releasing a Dash-based button that sticks onto devices and automatically orders a product from Amazon when you press it.  So you might stick one on your washing machine to order detergent.  So Amazon now knows how often we wash our clothes.  It will know if we suddenly start doing twice as much washing or half as much.  It’ll be able to infer a lot of useful stuff from that: maybe it indicates you’ve started (or stopped) living with someone or had a baby.  Changes in lifestyle (especially expensive ones like weddings and children) are exactly the sorts of thing that the companies who buy data from Amazon want to know about.  Is it too crazy-paranoid of me to immediately wonder whether law enforcement agencies might be able to make use of this data?

Either way, this is sure to be more about generating data than it is about attracting more shoppers of household goods.

I have an instinctive attraction to the idea of a physical button in a physical place, although I’m struggling to think of applications that would be useful for me personally.  The examples in the BBC article don’t seem that great to me.  I get washing powder at the supermarket when I’m already there buying food and although I don’t use makeup, my wife does.  She orders a lot of stuff from Amazon, but I don’t think she’s ever bought makeup online.  She prefers a physical shop for that kind of thing.  She also uses about 20 different cosmetic products, would she have a button for each one?  I think a better example is printer ink, especially in an office.  Office staff will know that the ink is running out on one of the printers, but won’t necessarily know the printer’s model number or be confident about which ink to buy.  Pressing the button could save quite a bit of time and stress.  It’s also immediate and staff don’t have to remember to order the ink when they get back to their desks.  But then what’s to stop half a dozen people ordering ink?  And you’re bound to get someone like me who sits next to the printer all day every day relentlessly pressing the button to see what happens (*).

Of course, now I’m suddenly worried about printers that can order their own ink when they start running low.  That’s an insidious little form of DRM, isn’t it?

Amazon is also planning to market services through the button, so press the one on your boiler if you need a plumber or one on your computer to book someone to fix it.  To me, this idea is not as immediately appealing.  Services aren’t as much of a commodity as household or office products.  But I can see an office that has outsourced its IT having a button on its computers to book the soonest available technician, I guess.

None of these applications are attractive enough to overcome my cynicism about privacy, though.

(*) Fun fact: I worked for an early ecommerce startup.  There was a secret fake credit card number that the sales people could use to demonstrate the full ordering process to potential clients without actually charging the card or processing the order.  Due to a mixup, one of the sales people – who had a habit of using filing cabinets as the example purchase – was given the IT director’s actual personal credit card number.  One day, about a dozen filing cabinets suddenly turned up at our tiny office.

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