Retail

Frightful Five: Apple Speaker Delayed While Alexa, Google Assistant Charge Ahead

Amazon’s Alexa just keeps getting smarter. Soon she’ll be making herself at home at work with new business-oriented skills, and she’s about to start powering payments, the company announced at its re:Invent conference. Google’s Assistant has also picked up a new capability by partnering with Alphabet-owned Waze to power hands-free, eyes-free navigation control for drivers. Meanwhile, Apple has spun out at the starting line of the smart speaker race, delaying the release of its HomePod until early 2018. This and more top stories from the Frightful Five — just in case you missed them.

Amazon

First there was Apple Pay, then Samsung Pay and now, perhaps inevitably, there’s about to be Amazon Pay. The feature will soon be embedded in apps developed for Alexa by third-party developers for use in donations, restaurants and event ticketing, the eCommerce giant revealed at its re:Invent conference in Las Vegas this week. Amazon also said its Pay feature would expand dramatically in 2018, with a public beta for the Gadgets API rolling out while there’s still some 2017 left on the clock. The skill will most likely leverage Alexa’s expanding voice recognition capabilities.

Another announcement at re:Invent said a new toolbox would make it easier to program Alexa into workplace applications. Amazon will reportedly announce its new Alexa for Business platform soon, along with a set of early partners and business-focused skills. Workplace skills could include having Alexa join conference calls on behalf of employees and adding data to enterprise sales programs.

Finally, while the U.S. was stuffing its face full of Thanksgiving turkey, Australian merchants were enjoying the launch of Amazon Australia. The eCommerce giant had previously indicated its plans for the Land Down Under but had not set a specific launch date. Last Wednesday, just in time for Black Friday, Amazon sent around an email telling merchants they should be prepared to accept orders starting at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday forward.

Apple

The HomePod smart speaker will not be available until early 2018, though Apple originally planned to release the competitor to Amazon’s Echo in time for the holiday shopping season. The tech giant did not give a reason for the delay, saying only that the company needed more time to ensure the product was ready for customers. Amazon is overhauling the Echo in hopes of stealing some of the HomePod’s thunder. It’s possible the strategy was successful and this is why we are seeing the HomePod’s delay. Apple’s big selling point for the HomePod was its superior auditory quality, which was supposed to justify the $349 price tag. But now, Amazon is working to improve the sound on the Echo, possibly taking away that edge.

Vietnamese cybersecurity researchers are saying that the iPhone X’s Face ID is not secure enough to use in business transactions. After demonstrating they could bypass the biometric security measure using a face mask, the team has further showed how it was able to reset the facial recognition enrollment to enroll a new face and unlock the phone. However, this hack may be impractical for real-world cybercriminals, who would have to invest around $150 in each mask, plus the time and effort to construct it, which would require an accurate scan of the victim’s face.

In other news, Apple Pay users who used the product to sign up for Postmates Unlimited by Nov. 23 will enjoy free delivery on orders over $20 through the end of the year, sans the monthly fee of $9.99. Postmates delivers from any merchant in the city for orders exceeding $20. This could encourage users to shop local for the holidays rather than defaulting to Amazon.

Facebook

The social media giant announced this week that it is eliminating transaction fees on donations. Facebook previously charged a 5 percent transaction fee for all nonprofit fundraisers. Now, official nonprofit organizations will not be subject to the extra charge, thanks to a petition last February demanding those fees be waived for a charity raising $1.5 million through the site. Individual fundraisers will still be subject to a payment processing fees of 6.9 percent as well as 30 cents per donation, which is comparable to similar online fundraising platforms like GoFundMe, Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

Nordic financial services company Nordea announced Thursday (Nov. 30) that its customers will be able to pay their bills via electronic invoice within the Facebook Messenger platform. The service will be powered by local payment services provider Nets. Nordea is the first Nordic bank service to integrate with Messenger.

Google

The search engine giant has added a finance tab to its search results, incorporating information from Google Finance such as news and detailed financials on companies in an easier-to-find format. However, a search feature that let users track investments will be eliminated. This move may be part of Google’s overall strategy to shake up its search business and keep users coming back with new features.

Google Assistant and navigation app Waze (owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet) now provide hands-free navigational Q&A to users while they’re driving. The “Talk to Waze” feature expands on the app’s voice control capabilities so users can set routes, preview navigation, send traffic reports and add stops to their journeys without taking their eyes off the road or hands off the wheel.

Finally, Google has made two recent changes that benefit small business owners. The first is easier invoicing for small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), with Intuit-powered eInvoice integration with Gmail. The Google Calendar now also integrates with QuickBooks products to help ensure invoices are paid on time. This will save SMB owners time and potential errors involved with entering Calendar activities into QuickBooks.

The second SMB-focused change improves search results when customers go online to find a professional who can help them paint their houses, fix their dishwashers or walk their dogs. A user searching for, say, a plumber will see an AI-generated list of potential problems the user may be experiencing. This way users won’t waste time calling someone who doesn’t specialize in the area they need. Google will register the need, confirm the user’s location and then either generate a call list for the user or enter a request to have a qualified local service provider call him or her.

Microsoft

Microsoft is jumping on the “new headquarters” bandwagon with plans to overhaul its 500-acre Redmond, Washington, campus. The company plans to add 18 new buildings, plus public spaces and sports fields. Transportation investments will also be part of the project, which is set to begin next fall. There will be housing for 47,000 Microsoft employees plus 8,000 additional residents.

The tech company has also recently added four new members to the Microsoft board: LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, PepsiCo COO Hugh Johnston and Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson. That makes nine out of Microsoft’s 14 independent board members who have been appointed since CEO Satya Nadella took the wheel in February 2014.

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