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Voice interface moves digital wars to ‘first mile’

By RICHARD MULLINS, Managing Director for EMEA at Acceleration

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Anyone who often travels on the London tube will notice people around them – usually students and young professionals – speaking into their smartphones even in sections of the underground without Wi-Fi or cellular coverage. They’re not sweet-talking their mobile devices, but cueing up a series of WhatsApp voice messages to be sent to their friends and colleagues as soon as they walk back into an area with an Internet connection.

This shift away from text-based and visual communication to multi-sensory (voice and visual) is one of the most significant trends to emerge from the next wave of artificial intelligence technologies. Many members of Generations X and Y abandoned voice calls for instant messaging once they got smartphones; now, the next generation are becoming more vocal in how they interact with – and through – machines.

We’re already seeing rising adoption of conversational voice interfaces, as young and imperfect as the technology still is. Research from comScore predicts that half of all searches will be performed via voice by 2020, while a study by Voicebot.ai indicates that nearly one in five US adults own a smart speaker or have access to one in their homes.

This trend is one reason that we are seeing the battle for the digital customer move away from the ‘last mile’ to the ‘first mile’ at a rapid speed. Now that the giants of ecommerce have largely solved the ‘last mile’ challenge of reliable logistics and rapid delivery, they are looking at ways they can tighten their grip on the first digital mile, where customers engage with and discover content, product and services.

Raising the stakes

This race to own the customer interface is not new, but the stakes are rising. We already live in a world with two major smartphone platforms (Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android), and now a handful of companies (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon) are seeking to own the voice interface with smart devices like speakers, kitchen appliances and home security systems.

Most consumers are today using voice conversation interfaces for simple content requests – Alexa, give me the news headlines; Siri, play my party mix – and the experience can be somewhat clunky. However, technology is improving exponentially, as we saw earlier this year when Google demoed its assistant phoning a hairdresser to make an appointment on behalf of a user.

Such interfaces are likely to become the place where a high proportion of customers are converted and complete transactions in the next few years. In other words, the likes of Apple and Google will have even more power over what consumers see, hear and interact with than they do today. Brands should be thinking about how they will prepare themselves for this future.

One of the first considerations is how they can use voice to engage with customers in an increasingly natural and simple nature. Today, it is usually easy to tell when you are speaking to a virtual assistant or chatbot, but in future, these interfaces will become harder to tell humans and machines apart, unless you are told.

This is an opportunity to offer personalised service in an automated manner—the human touch at machine scale. Brands that offer the best experiences through their conversational interfaces will have a competitive advantage. This will not just be about the AI driving the interaction, but also about how brands use data to personalise interactions and make them more relevant to customers.

How will you reach your customers?

Brands also need to decide how they will reach their customers in the first place – will they create services for platforms like Alexa and focus on mobile apps? Or will they try to take control of more of the digital first mile themselves? This will be a daunting challenge, but the rewards may be significant since the companies in the digital first mile will control the data and own the customer.

For this reason, we can expect to see those companies with the resources to do so focus on owning more of the customer interface and becoming the gateways to service and commerce for their client base. They will partner with other big brands to create platforms, experiences and digital destinations where customers can purchase a variety of goods and services.

Consider examples such as how Discovery’s Vitality weaves together healthcare, lifestyle brands and financial services, then think about how they might evolve in a digital world. Brands have long cooperated through strategies such as white label products, sponsorship agreements and distribution deals, but the next wave of digital change will take it to a new level.

As this shakes out in the years to come, brands will need to focus on building a technical architecture that enables them to rapidly partner with other brands to roll out innovative solutions and services. They will also need to consider how and where they will capture customer data and which touchpoints they can use to own the customer relationship.

The challenges will not be purely technical in nature. There is the human element of blending AI and people into ‘teams’ that deliver the best possible customer experience. Companies will also need to think about their business models and where they fit into the value chain. Those that align AI and data behind a coherent business strategy will be the ones who will win the first digital mile.

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IoT sensors are anything from doctor to canary in mines

Industrial IoT is changing the shape of the mining industry and the intelligence of the devices that drive it

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The Internet of Things (IoT) has become many things in the mining industry. A canary that uses sensors to monitor underground air quality, a medic that monitors healthcare, a security guard that’s constantly on guard, and underground mobile vehicle control. It has evolved from the simple connectivity of essential sensors to devices into an ecosystem of indispensable tools and solutions that redefine how mining manages people, productivity and compliance. According to Karien Bornheim, CEO of Footprint Africa Business Solutions (FABS), IoT offers an integrated business solution that can deliver long-term, strategic benefits to the mining industry.

“To fully harness the business potential of IoT, the mining sector has to understand precisely how it can add value,” she adds. “IoT needs to be implemented across the entire value chain in order to deliver fully optimised, relevant and turnkey operational solutions. It doesn’t matter how large the project is, or how complex, what matters is that it is done in line with business strategy and with a clear focus.”

Over the past few years, mining organisations have deployed emerging technologies to help bolster flagging profits, manage increasingly weighty compliance requirements, and reduce overheads. These technologies are finding a foothold in an industry that faces far more complexities around employee wellbeing and safety than many others, and that juggles numerous moving parts to achieve output and performance on a par with competitive standards. Already, these technologies have allowed mines to fundamentally change worker safety protocols and improve working conditions. They have also provided mining companies with the ability to embed solutions into legacy platforms, allowing for sensors and IoT to pull them into a connected net that delivers results.

“The key to achieving results with any IoT or technology project is to partner with service providers, not just shove solutions into identified gaps,” says Bornheim. “You need to start in the conceptual stage and move through the pre-feasibility and bankable feasibility stages before you start the implementation. Work with trained and qualified chemical, metallurgical, mechanical, electrical, instrumentation and structural engineers that form a team led by a qualified engineering lead with experience in project management. This is the only way to ensure that every aspect of the project is aligned with the industry and its highly demanding specifications.”

Mining not only has complexities in compliance and health and safety, but the market has become saturated, difficult and mercurial. For organisations to thrive, they must find new revenue streams and innovate the ways in which they do business. This is where the data delivered by IoT sensors and devices can really transform the bottom line. If translated, analysed and used correctly, the data can provide insights that allow for the executive to make informed decisions about sites, investment and potential.


“The cross-pollination of different data sets from across different sites can help shift dynamics in plant operation and maintenance, in the execution of specific tasks, and so much more,” says Bornheim. “In addition, with sensors and connected devices and systems, mining operations can be managed intelligently to ensure the best results from equipment and people.”

The connection of the physical world to the digital is not new. Many of the applications currently being used or presented to the mining industry are not new either. What’s new is how these solutions are being implemented and the ways in which they are defined. It’s more than sticking on sensors. It’s using these sensors to streamline business across buildings, roads, vehicles, equipment, and sites. These sensors and the ways in which they are used or where they are installed can be customised to suit specific business requirements.

“With qualified electronic engineers and software experts, you can design a vast array of solutions to meet the real needs of your business,” says Bornheim. “Our engineers can programme, create, migrate and integrate embedded IoT solutions for microcontrollers, sensors, and processors. They can also develop intuitive dashboards and human-machine interfaces for IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) devices to manage the input and output of a wide range of functionalities.”

The benefits of IoT lie in its ubiquity. It can be used in tandem with artificial intelligence or machine learning systems to enhance analytics, improve the automation of basic processes and monitor systems and equipment for faults. It can be used alongside M2M applications to enhance the results and the outcomes of the systems and their roles. And it can be used to improve collaboration and communication between man, machine and mine.

“You can use IoT platforms to visualise mission-critical data for device monitoring, remote control, alerts, security management, health and safety and healthcare,” concludes Bornheim. “The sky is genuinely the limit, especially now that the cost of sensors has come down and the intelligence of solutions and applications has gone up. From real-time insights to hands-on security and safety alerts to data that changes business direction and focus, IoT brings a myriad of benefits to the table.”

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Oracle leads in clash of
e-commerce titans

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Three e-commerce platforms have been awarded “gold medals” for leading the way in customer experience. SoftwareReviews, a division of Info-Tech Research Group, named Oracle Commerce Cloud the leader in its 2020 eCommerce Data Quadrant Awards, followed by Shopify Plus and IBM Digital Commerce. The awards are based on user reviews. 
The three vendors received the following citations:

  • Oracle Commerce Cloud ranked highest among software users, earning the number-one spot in many of the product feature section areas, shining brightest in reporting and analytics, predictive recommendations, order management, and integrated search. 
  • Shopify Plus performed consistently well according to users, taking the number-one spot for catalogue management, shopping cart management and ease of customisation.
  • IBM Digital Commerce did exceptionally well in business value created, quality of features, and vendor support.

The SoftwareReviews Data Quadrant differentiates itself with insightful survey questions, backed by 22 years of research in IT. The study involves gathering intelligence on user satisfaction with both product features and experience with the vendor. When distilled, the customer’s experience is shaped by both the software interface and relationship with the vendor. Evaluating enterprise software along these two dimensions provides a comprehensive understanding of the product in its entirety and helps identify vendors that can deliver on both for the complete software experience.

“Our recent Data Quadrant in e-commerce solutions provides a compelling snapshot of the most popular enterprise-ready players, and can help you make an informed, data-driven selection of an e-commerce platform that will exceed your expectations,” says Ben Dickie, research director at Info-Tech Research Group. 

“Having a dedicated e-commerce platform is where the rubber hits the road in transacting with your customers through digital channels. These platforms provide an indispensable array of features, from product catalog and cart management to payment processing to detailed transaction analytics.”

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