Alexa Bitten By Rufus

Amazon Enters Chatbot Fray With Shopping Tool
The tech giant introduced the 'Rufus' chatbot.

On one hand, this makes a lot of sense:

Amazon entered the consumer chatbot fray on Thursday, announcing a new artificial intelligence personal shopping assistant as the company races to catch up with other tech giants.

Customers can ask the tool, Rufus, product questions directly in the search bar of the company’s mobile app, Amazon said in a blog post. The A.I. will then provide answers in a conversational tone. The examples provided in the announcement included comparing different kinds of coffee makers, recommendations for gifts and a follow-up question about the durability of running shoes.

In my own usage of Amazon, I often just do a generic search for something I'm looking for and see what comes up. Increasingly, what comes up is whatever happens to be advertising on Amazon – which has obviously become a killer business for them – but it's not the best experience. Having a conversation about what I'm actually looking for makes all the sense in the world here, assuming it works well.

And that's the key, while Amazon became synonymous with the notion of a digital assistant thanks to Alexa, as it turns out, Alexa isn't great at the above use case. That's obviously because Alexa is voice-first. And for the above use case, you really want to be able to see what you're looking for. And so it turns out that 'Rufus' (yes, named after Amazon's unofficial dog mascot), could end up supplanting Alexa for what the company actually wants you to use an assistant for. That is, commerce.

With that in mind, I'm sort of surprised they're not just calling this feature 'Alexa' as well. Again, they already have ubiquitous brand awareness there – my five year old talks to Alexa arguably just as much as she speaks to me – so why muddle that? The answer, of course, may be answered above, with Alexa having not been successful when it comes to shopping, so perhaps there's a bit of a "boy who cried 'wolf'" concern here – that is, people won't even try the new tool if they've failed in this use case with Alexa in the past. Maybe Amazon just wants to start fresh with a new bot. (They also have an unfortunately named 'Q' bot for enterprise usage.)

And maybe if Rufus is successful, they rope it all together in a "New Alexa" powered by next generation AI technology. That's the other key here. Apple gets a lot of shit for Siri being pretty poor as an AI agent, because "she" was so early. The one time Apple was a true first mover (amongst the big players)! As it turns out, Alexa was likely too early as well! Despite the millions of Echo devices sold, the AI underpinning Alexa now seems rudimentary with the rise of ChatGPT and the new LLMs.

Anyway, Amazon has both some branding and technological work to do here. But this all feels directionally correct for the company. Mainly I'm just surprised that there isn't some cute corgi to talk to as a UI here. Then again, that might evoke the true OG AI bot: Clippy!