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Since the dawn of e-commerce, people have used physical or virtual keyboards to place orders on desktops, laptops, tablets and phones. Typing on a keyboard is a really clunky, inaccurate and inefficient way to enter data into a computer, especially in the age of the smartphone. I can’t consistently line up my old fingers with the tiny keys on my iPhone and so I rely on something called “autocorrect,” which is the most dishonest characterization of a product or service since Lucky Strikes claimed its cigarettes offered “throat protection” way back in 1930.
Think about the illogic of putting a keyboard between a human brain (which is really fast) and a computer (also really fast). Your brain knows what you want to order, but you have to activate your motor skills (which are hopefully better than mine), place your 10 digits over an assortment of a few dozen keys and translate your thoughts via one-key-at-a-time physical actions so the computer can understand what’s going on inside your head. It’s a ludicrously restrictive governor on the potential speed between the human and electronic computers and it’s going to go away for that reason, and also because it results in a lot of errors.
What Will Replace Keyboards?
The transition away from keyboards is already underway and it has big implications for distributors. Increasingly, customers are going to use voice, image recognition and machine to machine (M2M) connections to place orders. Coming someday: using your thoughts to control computers (no joke; keep reading).
Many distributors are familiar with M2M ordering, thanks to the widespread use of vending machines and automated bin replenishment. It’s fast, accurate and efficient, but it won’t help buyers looking to complete “tail spend” purchases that are made up of an ever-changing and wildly random assortment of products.
You can order by voice or image recognition right now; try launching the Amazon app on your phone and hitting the camera or voice-ordering icons in the top right. Describe what you want to order or point your phone camera at the item and the software does a pretty good job of identifying the product and bringing you to the ordering page on (where else?) Amazon.com.
Imagine a day when a construction superintendent wearing Alexa-enabled safety goggles looks at a product on a jobsite and says, “Alexa, order me five Husqvarna XL-5000 blades and have them delivered to this spot.” Or a little further in the future when the superintendent looks at the blades and asks, “Alexa, do you know what those are?” and the AI replies, “Yes, Dave, those are Husqvarna XL-5000 blades. Would you like me to order some?”
I Think, Therefore, I Buy
Utilizing thoughts to control computers has been around awhile and now Elon Musk has built a company called Neuralink to develop and commercialize this technology. Personally, I think it’s going to be awhile before you can stand in your jammies some morning and simply think, “Alexa, I need more Crest” and she’ll order it for you, but that capability is coming eventually and maybe sooner than you think.
Artificial intelligence is a fledgling technology but it’s improving quickly. I was recently in Italy and I used another type of AI – Google Translate on my iPhone – to communicate effectively with natives who didn’t seem to understand me when I used hand gestures and talked louder. How long will it be before the language barrier evaporates as we all use interfaces that automatically translate in real time – you know, like in Star Trek? Not all that long, based on my experience.
Skeptical? You’re in Good Company
Lord Kelvin, who was knighted for his scientific accomplishments, wrote in 1902 that “No aeroplane will ever be practically successful.” Word didn’t reach the Wright brothers in time; they flew in 1903. Ken Olson, the CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation said in 1977 that, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." He was right, in a way – we actually prefer to have them in our pockets.
Even so, you may not buy any of this. But you should, because your customers are going to want to buy from you with their voices and camera phones soon. And that’s where things get difficult for wholesale distributors: you have to understand and apply advanced artificial intelligence technology to provide voice, image and (someday) thought-driven ordering to your customers.
Transforming Voice and Images into Products
“So what?” you may ask. “Amazon has a lot of competitors. I’ll buy the AI from Google or Microsoft.”
Maybe. The challenge isn’t just capturing the images or spoken words. You have to translate them into specific product attributes. If you’ve ever built a product database for a distribution company, you know it’s difficult to create and just as hard to maintain well over time. Now imagine that the task got vastly more challenging because you have to develop an AI layer that can match up sounds and images with specific SKUs. Amazon does this today. How far along are you?
What to Do Next
Keyboards are going to be around for a long time. But the proportion of orders originating with humans typing is going to start dropping off rapidly. Just like film, fax machines and Borders bookstores, old technologies like the slow-as-a-snail keyboard interface will get replaced by better solutions – disrupting industries and altering the competitive landscape along the way.
Creating these capabilities is a long-term project and there aren’t a lot of experts you can turn to today, but that doesn’t mean you should stand still. You can invest in your own systems, hire talented IT experts and raise your digital IQ right now.
To work on your digital expertise, please join us in Denver from June 18-20 for our inaugural Digital Distributor Summit. You’ll network with and learn from some of the industry’s leading technology thinkers in an exclusive setting. For now, you’ll have to use a keyboard to register. Maybe next year, you can do it by voice.
As always, we’d love to get your feedback on this or anything else you read on MDM.com. Leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you in Denver.