Amazon and Microsoft have been locked in a pitched battle in the enterprise. Their AWS and Azure cloud services have, respectively, been duking it out over corporate cloud infrastructure for a while. That's been a good thing for businesses as the power and flexibility on offer have improved while costs have fallen. Now Microsoft is preparing to go toe-to-toe with Amazon in a another market - the supermarket. They're planning to introduce their AI capability and other systems to make grocery shopping easier.
Amazon launched their first no-checkout store earlier this year. By using cameras and sensors, Amazon's system detects when you pick something up and leave the store. It then automatically charges your Amazon account. While there are still people employed in the store, their role is to help shoppers rather than scan items and collect money.
Reuters say they have six sources within Microsoft who confirm they are working on a new retail system that leverages the company's AI and other tools. The report says one of the challenges is that retail, particularly in the United States, suffers from very low margins making any technology investment quite risky. But the insiders who provided information to Reuters say they are working on ways to make the new systems cheap enough to integrate with existing systems.
Unlike Amazon, who set their systems up and run them in their own store, Microsoft is rumoured to be working with large US retailers such as Walmart.
There are two sides to this. Retail is a massive employer and there is already some backlash around self-checkout systems that have reduced the number of staff needed at the front of the store. On the other hand, there's the convenience to the customer to consider.
For what it's worth, when I'm in a hurry, I use self-checkout but when I do the weekly shopping, I use a register - I like chatting with the cashier.
If Microsoft gets their system right, it could establish an early lead in this market and change the way we shop, making the in-store experience more like the online one where we find and collect our goods and pay without needing to interact with anyone.
I'm not sure that's a good thing.