Jorge Serna

@jorge.serna

Amazon Anytime, can that work? (2) — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Amazon may launch a messaging app, competing in Facebook’s domain. But does it stand a chance?

According to recent information, Amazon is working on “Anytime” an application, that would compete with Facebook’s WhatsApp or Messenger in the social communications space.

This is the second part in a(short) series of posts looking at several aspects of Anytime:

What will Anytime do?

The information available about Anytime functionality comes from the following list:

(source TechCrunch)

With this level of description it is very difficult to do a real product assessment, since we don’t really know anything about how customers will access to this features, how the interaction will be or what limitations or differentiations the experience will bring. Still the list covers known features from other applications, while adding several things that read different from what is available in the market or at least look intriguing.

Let’s take a look at that, but be warned that the analysis will be 100% pure speculation.

The Good

So looking at that list I can see things that make sense for providing a new messaging app:

  • It does cover the basics expected from a messaging app today. You can obviously text, but also make voice and video calls, and apply further creativity to content sharing by having GIFs or emoji (it is unthinkable today to even considera a messaging app without that!), as well as filters for images and video. Users can share their location (although it doesn’t say if its the current location, allows location tracking in real time for a certain period, or shares it constantly, like Snap Maps). Even @mentions and chat customization are available. Of course, making sense of all this with a proper UX will be critical, but let’s assume that Amazon Anytime will do good there.
  • Multi-device. Amazon insists in that you can use their product in several devices, including mobile and desktop (weirdly they mention desktop first…). In fact the initial images also show a smart-watch icon, which shows that they are taking seriously this aspect. This follows the approach taken by Telegram, and moves away from the current limitation in WhatsApp. It believe Amazon is aware and preparing for the trend of the smartphone disintegration, which I have posted about before, and it makes sense because they are pioneering the expansion of connected devices via their Echo line. In fact, this is not mentioned in the list, but why shouldn’t they offer Anytime for Echo? I will talk about this in the next — and last — post on this series.
  • Real time communications for groups. The text mentions clearly the support for group calls and group video. In fact it does it twice: once when talking about group chats, and then again when describing the high quality of their calling experience. This is an increasingly popular communication model, available in other apps like Facebook Messenger, but that is also creating new kinds of experiences, like the one provided by HouseParty, which is not based on “calling”, but on push-presence. What approach will Amazon follow? The description points to something similar to what Facebook Messenger does, as it puts group video in the context of a previous text chat, but there is no real information there. Depending on how they design this, it can be the difference between a success or just another feature crammed into a busy product. Let’s give Amazon the benefit of the doubt for the moment.
Skype Add-ins may be similar to the group activities planned for Anytime
  • Group activities. Ordering food or splitting a bill? That sounds interesting. It definitely walks the path toward making messaging a platform, which ties nicely into the next feature: interacting with businesses. Again the question will be how they add this variety of features into a chat. My guess at the moment is that they will follow a model similar to the iMessage apps from Apple or the add-ins that Skype includes in their latest version. They will allow developers to create small apps that will provide this kind of activity (bill splitting, polls, food ordering…) and users will be able to add them into conversations. Previous experiences with this model have not been wildly successful, but maybe Amazon has learned something from developers building Skills for Alexa that can drive this differently.
  • Chat with businesses. And of course they left the best for the end. The previous post in this series was about why the real goal for Amazon was to enable Anytime as an eCommerce channel (“and even shop!”), so of course this is a core feature in the product. And again, the question is how this will be built and what experience will be offered to users. Will you get a new conversation entry in your inbox with any new Amazon order, so that you can check order status and ask specific questions or guidance for returning items to the seller? Will you be able to chat with brands just by tapping a mention to them in a different conversation? Will you have a channel for your utility provider to discuss bills? Will you get advertisements from products in the form of unsolicited chats? (they better not!) And while this will be and important focus on the new product, it is more important to realize that — from the user’s point of view — chatting with business is just a side use case. Amazon Anytime is presented as a messaging application to talk with your friends, and in which you can also chat with businesses. So while Amazon has their biggest interest in this last aspect, it is the rest of the experience that needs to be great for that business model to be viable.

The Bad

And while all of the things discussed until now made sense (pending to see how they are executed) a couple of them sound just weird.

  • First let’s look at security — what does it mean (typos notwithstanding) that user can encrypt “important messages”. It sounds to me that this points to an “insecure by default” approach, in which conversations will not provide full end-to-end encryption and just allow the activation of secure modes or obfuscation of specific messages. In particular the “bank account details” mention sounds too concrete, linking at once the eCommerce aspirations for Amazon with the feeling that the rest of the conversation would not be secure. This kind of reminds me to Google’s approach with Allo and Google Assistant, that shows a 1:1 relation to Anytime and Alexa in Amazon’s side. It also feels related to the group activities feature, that may require sharing elements of conversations with some cloud services to provide the expected value, like suggesting a pick up or destination place for a ride from a conversation. And it also is reminiscent of recent news about Amazon providing users’ audio from Alexa to developers in certain circumstances, which may be required for the technology to evolve and perform as expected, but reinforces the ongoing debate about convenience vs. privacy. Amazon will have to provide a lot more of information about how they will treat user’s conversations in terms of privacy assurance, and what this will entail, but given that the main contender on messaging has made privacy one of the main values they push for, this initially looks like an aspect for the “Bad” column.
  • “Everyone’s on it”? Really? The first claim on the feature list is the least clear of them all and the one that gives me a bad feeling. On the one hand, how does Amazon expect to have everyone on it? Communication applications have a big issue in their growth stage, because to be useful both parties of the communication need to have downloaded the app and registered, and that means that in the early days (when no one knows the app exists and so haven’t downloaded it) these apps are pretty useless. To beat this, growth techniques entail getting the help from early users that would invite their friends by text or email (the really universal mechanisms that allow you to reach everyone) to get them to download and register. That is how the social graph keeps growing and, at some point, that “everyone’s on it” becomes more realistic (see WhatsApp in Europe and Latin America). This finding users by email or text is actually leveraging a pre-existing social graph: the address book in your phone. By getting users to identify using their phone number (that can be texted) or their e-mail address (that can be emailed), they are also providing a way to identify potential matches with contacts whose phone or email is registered in the user’s address book. Amazon is saying something different instead: “No numbers here”, “just using their name”. Are they planning to build their social graph around nicknames like Skype or Twitter? That search-by-name approach may sounds simpler, but in reality is much harder when you are faced with names like jserna1977 or joeT_43, and provides a much slower graph growth than leveraging the address book in a phone. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, and this is just a marketing language approach to saying that it DOES use the user’s address book so they don’t need to bother with phone numbers (since they are already there, indexed by name)… but the service will be actually using phone numbers behind the scenes. Even if that is the case, the “everyone’s on it” may be an aspiration but is definitely misleading (as of today, no-one’s on it!), and creates an illusion of universal communication tool which is an almost impossible claim. That is bad.

The Ugly

The ugly part is that a single item in the “Bad” list outweighs everything in the “Good” one.

Social Communication applications, but specially messaging ones, are not succeeding based on the number of features but on the size of their engaged social graph. Sometimes a single (great) feature can push this, and this was the basis of the original growth in SnapChat and is now driving other products like HouseParty. But an aggregation of features, most of which seem to be available elsewhere, will not make Anywhere a success.

Why would users switch from their existing messaging apps to use Amazon’s Anytime? Why will they download it and register to talk with friends if they are already talking with them via ten other apps? What is the hook?

Yes, in “Anytime wish-list” there are lots of things that WhatsApp does not do today. In fact I have already discussed in the past that WhatsApp should consider doing some to avoid being disrupted, specifically group real time and multi-device support. But there are other applications out there that do those things, and while they are getting some traction, they are not displacing utilitarian conversations, or at least not in numbers that make them a channel more attractive for business transactions.

And that is the key conversation. If we consider that the real goal for Amazon here is to have businesses use Anytime to interact with their customers (and pay Amazon in the process) we need to look at what businesses are interested in. And what they want is to be able to reach their customers and that their potential customers can reach them. So Anytime will start to be valuable once they have an audience of millions in the platform, and as long as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp have 1.2+ billion engaged users, Amazon’s messenger initiative will not be the first choice for businesses.

There are lots of open questions here, like what kind of tools will Amazon provide to these businesses and how will they compare to the ones that WhatsApp is not even offering yet (a lot to speculate). It is possible that Amazon’s platform will be much more appealing, and that may help them gather momentum with business even with a reduced audience, but in the end the fundamental metric that will be how many customers for an specific business’ market are in Amazon Anytime vs. in other competing channels.

And I can see no specific differential advantage in the list of features that would drive users to Amazon un a significant way. And on top of that, if Amazon finds that mythical “silver bullet” for growth, they still have the risk of having that same feature rapidly cloned by Facebook in their products to neutralize it.

The Key

So to summarize, the key aspect that is critical for Amazon in this space is they must create:

For this second point, the best way to do this should be leveraging some asset that Amazon has and that Facebook cannot get access to easily.

Maybe the tools and relationships in Amazon’s marketplace will make it so easy for vendors to create messaging channels than they will encourage their own buyers to use Anytime for their support and communications. Maybe shows on Amazon Prime Video will create content channels in Anytime that will allow interaction with the shows themselves in real time, and this will make it attractive enough for viewers. Maybe the Anytime’s experience in the Echo device line will help bootstrap the growth and then keep attracting users.

It is too early to say, but without some catalyst for growth that can be controlled by Amazon, building the capilarity in the network required for a successful Social Communications product at the scale required to enable the business goals that Amazon has will be nearly impossible.

But how does this fit with their Alexa Communication Services strategy? And, could Amazon try something different to defend themselves from the risk of eCommerce in chats? Well that is what I will talk about in the next (and final) post in this series.

You can also read the previous post in this series, in which I look at the key reason why Amazon is aiming at the messaging space.

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