Behind The Would-Be Siri Killer Facebook M, A Battle Over AI’s Future

Facebook M

Facebook M

From my Forbes blog:

Facebook’s test release today of a digital assistant inside its Messenger app is a shot across the bow of the Internet’s biggest companies: Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.com. It’s also the latest salvo in a high-stakes battle over the ways artificial intelligence should transform the way we live and work.

Facebook M is intended to allow users of Facebook Messenger to pose any query or service request in natural language and get a personalized answer immediately. The key wrinkle that sets it apart from Apple’s Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft Cortana is that there’s a team of human “trainers” who will step in when the machines aren’t quite up to the challenge.

So far, it’s only available to a few hundred people in the San Francisco Bay Area, and its timing and scope are unclear. But judging from a brief post by VP of Messaging Products David Marcus, Facebook M is clearly a major bid in a quickening battle to be the virtual assistant of choice, taking on not only Siri, Google Now, and Cortana, but also a raft of upstarts such as Luka, Magic, and Operator.

And in the mobile age, virtual assistants could prove to be the key product that will define which companies dominate the next decade of online services, just as search was for the past decade. “Whoever creates the intelligent assistant will be the first place people go to find things, buy things, and everything else,” former AI researcher Tim Tuttle, CEO of the voice interface firm Expect Labs, said last week.

But what’s even more interesting in the bigger picture is how Facebook M plays into a longstanding, fundamental battle over how artificial intelligence should be employed–one that has recently come into sharper focus. … The upshot: Until and unless AI gets so good that machines can anticipate what we want, people will remain a key component of truly intelligent online services.

Read the entire post.

With Android Pay, Google Closes Gap With Apple In Mobile Payments

From my Forbes.com blog:

Apple vaulted ahead of Google in mobile payments last September when it announced Apple Pay, its long-awaited entry into mobile payments. By comparison, the three-year-old Google Wallet looked tired and limited.

Now, Apple’s head start has nearly vanished. Today at its I/O conference in San Francisco for software developers, Google introduced Android Pay, a successor to Google Wallet that, when it launches this summer, will come close to matching Apple Pay for making payments via smartphones easy in stores and inside apps.

They won’t quite be identical. Apple Pay’s security system is somewhat different, and Android phones won’t have fingerprint identification like Apple’s until the new version of Android comes out this summer, and even then only on phones that have fingerprint I.D. capability. But they’ll be close enough that consumers should be comfortable using either one in largely the same way–and at the very same 700,000 store locations that have the right checkout terminals.

That’s a big step forward for Google’s mobile payment ambitions. A competitive mobile wallet is key for the search giant because the ability to pay with a couple taps on a smartphone will grease the e-commerce skids for app developers and marketers alike.

If you’re tuning into the mobile payments business recently, you might wonder if Google is simply copying Apple. Actually, it’s more the other way around. …

Read the entire post.

Did Apple Flub The Timing Of The Apple Watch?

applewatches

From my Forbes blog:

The Apple Watch reviews are already in, and the verdict is pretty consistent: Apple’s long-awaited smartwatch looks great, but it’s slow, the interface is a little confusing, and too many of the apps are half-baked.

The decidedly mixed reviews are unusual for Apple, even for an entirely new product. I know there were people who panned the iPod and the iPhone when they were first released, but they were clearly idiots. This time, I’m not so sure.

In fact, the rather obvious and oft-mentioned negatives suggest that if another company had produced this smartwatch—impossible, since it doesn’t work unless you have an iPhone 5 or 6—the reviews would have been even more negative. Even the technorati seem unimpressed.

The muted enthusiasm—in some cases outright advice not to buy the current version—raises a central question: Did the company launch the Apple Watch, which will be available for pre-order Friday ahead of deliveries starting April 24, too soon? True, almost all the Apple Watch models were sold out within 30 minutes on Friday morning preordering, though as one story rightly puts it, “it is not clear whether this is due to relatively high demand or low production.” There were many reports in recent weeks about limited supplies, either because of manufacturing issues or because Apple was purposely limiting production.

Apple is sometimes criticized for being late to the party on some products, only to prove after it quickly kills most of the competition that its timing was actually perfect. A few people point out that the Apple Watch is also too late because other smartwatches and wearables from Samsung, Motorola, Fitbit and many others are already out. But a number of signs point to the opposite and very un-Apple-like problem: It’s too early.

Read the reasons why in the full post.

This Man’s Betting On The Technology Behind Apple Pay – And Even He Says It’s Years Away From Wide Adoption

Osama Bedier, founder and CEO of Poynt

Osama Bedier, founder and CEO of Poynt

From my Forbes blog:

When Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled Apple Pay in September, he predicted that it would “forever change the way all of us buy things.” As I wrote in a recent post, while he ultimately might be proven right, Apple’s mobile wallet is likely to take years to catch on widely.

Although that assessment is nearly universally accepted among people who actually know how payments work, I got a lot of pushback on that from Apple fanatics as well as at least one Forbes contributor.

So I decided to ask someone who has bet at least partly on Apple Pay’s eventual success: Osama Bedier, a former vice president at both PayPal and Google, where he headed the search giant’s mobile wallet effort. Bedier is now founder and CEO of Poynt, which just announced plans to build a slick-looking smart point-of-sale terminal that can take most existing forms of payment–including those facilitated by Near Field Communication, the method used in both Apple Pay and Google Wallet to send data from a smartphone to the register. Suffice to say, when it comes to payments, Bedier not only knows what he’s talking about, he’s pretty agnostic about the many competing mobile payment methods.

His take? To start with the positive, he says Apple’s timing looks good–not a surprising take, since Bedier’s making the same bet that the timing is right. “Apple is good at jumping on bandwagons they think could take off,” he says. That’s in contrast, he notes, to Google, which “gets infatuated with technology”–though he also says that Google Wallet helped kickstart a move by tens of thousands of retail outlets to install NFC-capable readers.

Still, Bedier says, Apple Pay “isn’t going to happen next year. It’s going to take four years before it happens everywhere.” What’s more, Apple Pay works only on iPhones (and eventually Apple Watches), and that’s unlikely to change soon, so Apple Pay won’t be a standard except for iPhones. …

Read the rest of the story.

Apple Pay Has Finally Arrived! Great – But Here Are 7 Reasons It Won’t Be A Slam-Dunk Success

applepay

From my Forbes blog:

Judging from most of the coverage of  Apple Pay, the mobile wallet that launches Monday, you’d think Apple has already revolutionized the $4 trillion U.S. payments market before anyone has even used it in the wild.

It does look pretty slick, at least based on Apple’s own demonstration at the Sept. 9 event where it also debuted two iPhone 6 models and the Apple Watch. All that’s required to buy a burger and fries at McDonald’s or a tank of gas at Chevron, Apple CEO Tim Cook promised, is to hold an iPhone near a wireless reader at the checkout counter and press a thumb on the home button to activate Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor. In under 10 seconds, you’re out the door.

That would be a stark contrast to today, when using a mobile wallet from Google, PayPal, and others requires unlocking a phone, typing in a number, checking into a store, and various other steps–including waiting to see if it even works and trying another time or two when it doesn’t. Many merchants don’t even have checkout people who can tell you how it works. In several attempts in the past week or so, I went two for four: Google Wallet worked at Peet’s and Walgreen’s, though only after a couple of attempts, PayPal didn’t work at a local cafe where it was supposed to, and CVS didn’t work with either one. Even the clerk there didn’t know how the reader at the checkout counter worked.

But based on research into rival wallets and interviews with merchants, payment tech firms, and payments experts, it’s apparent that Apple Pay is far from a guaranteed success–at least if you judge success on what Apple CEO Tim Cook promised last month: “Apple Pay will forever change the way all of us buy things.” Here’s why there’s good reason to view Apple Pay with skepticism:

* You can’t use Apple Pay unless you buy an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus. Apple uses a method to send data from a phone to a checkout reader called Near Field Communication, which is used in some 220,000 retail locations already for other wallets and new credit cards that use a chip to store information. Previous iPhone models didn’t have NFC, so you can’t use them (except for iPhone 5 models along with an Apple Watch, but not until next year). So not only is Apple Pay limited to iPhone users, it’s limited only to iPhone 6 buyers, who number at least 10 million so far and perhaps double that by the end of December.

That may well be enough to jumpstart Apple Pay usage and finally make the long-awaited mobile wallet a reality–for iPhone users. But no store will want to turn away users of Android or other phones who see the iPhone owner in front of them in line whisk through with a tap. “Merchants won’t want the PR hit of discriminating against Android users,” says Richard Crone, CEO of payments advisory firm Crone Consulting, who notes that there have been 50 million downloads of branded merchant apps and 90 million active banking app installs. “This will cause them to get religion quick around their own mobile wallet.”

* Cash and credit cards just aren’t that hard to use. Everyone takes cash, and most places of any size accept credit cards. Credit cards also survive getting wet or hot or sat on much better than phones. As payments expert Bill Maurer, dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of California at Irvine, said in my Apple Pay story, “All of these mobile wallets are looking for a problem to solve.” …

Read on for more challenges facing Apple Pay.

Why Are TV Makers Pushing Cadillacs When We Really Want Ferraris?

US-IT-CES-ELECTRONICS

Samsung shows off huge new TV (Photo: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)

Are TV makers going the way of Detroit in the 1960s? In what many, including those who didn’t bother to attend, are calling a boring Consumer Electronics Show, the star attractions seem to be leviathans such as Samsung’s and Sony’s new 84-inch TV sets. Even they apparently is not amazing enough, because Samsung is promising a 110-inch model later this year.

Size isn’t the only way they’re big, either. Those 84-inchers, which one Sony executive had the audacity to call “Ferraris,” costs $25,000, more than I will ever pay for a car, let alone a TV. And they have more pixels than my never-acute eyesight can ever process–even if there were content created for them, which there isn’t.

Seriously, guys, I’m not buying another TV for a very long time. The screen I’ve got is as big as I can fit in my living room, and that’s not going to change. Even if I did have a bigger living room, a big-ass 84-inch TV would feel faintly embarrassing, like tractor tires on a little pickup.

What’s more, not a single Smart TV feature, no matter how cool, is going to sway me to pony upwards of a thousand dollars for a new set to replace a perfectly fine screen. I’ve got TiVo, I’ve got Apple TV, I’ve got Roku, I’ve got Google TV, and probably there’s some other add-on device I can’t even remember. All of them offer more features and apps than I will ever use.

All of this makes me think of those road hogs of the late 1950s and early 1960s that Detroit insisted on manufacturing shortly before those cheap little imports ate their lunch. The fact is that more and more TV watching is occurring on much smaller screens, especially tablets. The sofa spuds of today don’t drive Cadillacs. We want Ferraris, or even Priuses. …

Read the rest of the post at The New Persuaders.

13 Questions For 2013 In The World Of Online Advertising

questionsCross-posted at my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

For the past few years, I’ve offered predictions here and on The New Persuaders for what’s likely to come in the next year. This year, I’m going to shake it up and throw out a few questions instead. I think I know the answers to some of them, but if many won’t be answered definitively by year-end, they remain top of mind for me and probably for many others in online media and advertising.

So in this, the first full week of the new year, here are some questions to which I hope to start finding answers:

* Will image advertising finally take off online? I have to believe that as people spend more and more time online instead of reading print publications and watching TV, brand marketers will want and need to reach them there with ads that are aimed at creating consideration for later purchases, not just eliciting an immediate sale like Google’s search ads and too many banner ads. We’re already starting to see signs of such advertising with the early success of Facebook’s Sponsored StoriesTwitter’s Promoted Tweets, and YouTube’s TrueView ads–not to mention the explosion of tablets, which provide a lean-back experience more compatible with image advertising. This won’t be a sudden change, since brand marketers and agencies don’t move quickly, but you can’t tell me there aren’t going to be increasingly compelling ways for brands to influence people online.

* Can advertisers and publishers make ads more personal without scaring people? That’s the $64 billion question, and it likely won’t get answered in full this year. It’s easy for headline-hungry politicians to make a big deal out of Facebook’s latest privacy gaffe or the Wall Street Journal’s or the New York Times’ latest scare story about an ad that followed somebody all over the Web. That’s especially so since Facebook really does push the privacy envelope too far at times, and too many advertisers idiotically chase one more sales conversion at the cost of scaring off hundreds of others or inviting onerous legislation. But making ads more useful to each individual person is not only crucial to online commerce, it’s potentially better for most consumers as well–seriously, I don’t need to see another ad for a fitness center or a new credit card, but that ad for Camper van Beethoven’s new CD had me in a split-second. The answer lies in these two words, everyone: transparency and choice.

* Will mobile advertising work? Well, some of it already does, to hear Google and Facebook tell it. And while those already devalued digital dimes so far turn to pennies when it comes to ads on smartphones and tablets, this still feels more like growing pains than a crisis in online advertising. Sure, the screens are small and people don’t like to be interrupted in their mobile cocoons. So a different kind of advertising is probably needed–clearly, banners don’t cut it on a four-inch screen. But the value to advertisers of knowing your location and maybe the apps you’re using, coupled with knowledge of what your friends like–all with permission, of course–is huge. That permission may be really tough to earn. But if advertisers can offer tangible value, perhaps in the form of useful services related to what you’re doing or looking for or shopping for–and isn’t that the ultimate native ad?–people may loosen their hold on that information.

I have a lot more questions, but I’ve got to stop before too much of 2013 is gone.

Check out more questions at the full post.