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Update September 2017


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Update September 16, 2017

Shopping by voice on Amazon or Google device could cost you

With Echo Show, Amazon has given its voice-enabled Echo speaker a touch screen and video-calling capabilities as it competes with Google’s efforts at bringing “smarts” to the home. (Amazon via AP, File)

Anick Jesdanun

New York (AP) - In the name of convenience, Amazon and Wal-Mart are pushing people to shop by just talking to a digital assistant.

Shopping by voice means giving orders to the Alexa assistant on Amazon’s Echo speaker and other devices, even if your hands are tied up with dinner or dirty diapers. And next month, Wal-Mart will start offering voice shopping, too, with the Google Assistant on the rival Home speaker.

Voice shopping is still new. But once you start using it, look out - you might never know if it’s offering you the best deal. Because these devices can’t say much without tiring your ears, voice shopping precludes some of the savvy shopping practices you may have relied on to find the best bargains - in particular, researching products and comparing prices.

You’d be leaving much of the buying decision to Amazon, Wal-Mart or other retailers.

Hooked on Amazon

Amazon has had more than a year’s head start, and dominates voice shopping. Google introduced shopping to Home in February, letting people order essentials from more than 40 retailers like Target and Costco under its Google Express program. Its partnership with Wal-Mart means hundreds of thousands of items will be available to customers in late September.

With websites and apps, many customers place items in the cart, but change their minds before completing the order, said Lauren Beitelspacher, a marketing professor at Babson College in Massachusetts. Voice shopping eliminates those intervening steps.

And with Amazon so far ahead, voice shopping with Alexa is another way of getting you hooked on Amazon. Although Amazon allows some third-party ordering through Alexa, including pizza from Domino’s and hotels through Kayak, general shopping is limited to Amazon’s own store. If Alexa orders diapers for you just as you run out, for instance, Amazon locks in the order before you have a chance to visit Wal-Mart.

“You can’t get away from Amazon,” Beitelspacher said. “I don’t know if gimmick is the right word, but (voice shopping) is part of a strategy to be omnipresent in consumers’ lives.”

Assistant in charge

Ask Alexa to buy something, and it presents you with something you’ve bought before or an educated guess based on some undisclosed mix of price, satisfaction rating and shipping time. Amazon won’t provide more details. You can get a product’s average customer-satisfaction rating, but not specific reviews, even on screen-equipped Echo Show devices.

Brian Elliott, general manager of Google Express, says that with most affiliated retailers, personalization occurs as the assistant learns shoppers’ preferences, but the integration with Wal-Mart will happen more quickly.

In some ways, shopping by voice assistant is a throwback to the days when you were largely limited to what sales representatives recommended at a physical store.

Amazon’s website gives you a lot of information about most products, from color options and sizes to the specific reasons other customers hated a product you’re considering. You’re able to compare similar items and choose something cheaper if you’re willing to sacrifice some features or take a chance on an unknown manufacturer.

And, of course, you can also compare Amazon’s prices with those of other online merchants.

But with Amazon’s voice shopping, it’s back to what the company’s representative recommends.

Voice shopping requires membership in Amazon’s $99-a-year Prime loyalty program, and it works with most of the tens of millions of items eligible for free shipping. But someone browsing on the web might find deals in non-Prime items; Alexa won’t let you buy them.

In addition, Alexa’s interactions with shoppers are constrained by the fact that listening and speaking can be a lot slower than reading and clicking.

And while Amazon’s website won’t necessarily list the cheapest option first either, the alternatives are easier to view on a screen.

Justin Evans, an engineer in Whitman, Massachusetts, bought oatmeal and smart plugs using Alexa to claim exclusive discounts, but he prefers browsing and reviewing products for general shopping. “I’m a less impulsive shopper than I think their target market is,” he said.

Shopping out loud

Companies are aware that voice shopping takes getting used to. “It’s not natural to shout out a purchase desire and have it be fulfilled,” said Ryne Misso of the Market Track retail research firm in Chicago.

Jenny Blackburn, Amazon’s director of voice shopping, believes it will catch on once people get used to it.

To get people started, Amazon has been offering exclusive deals through Alexa and a $10 credit on the first order. For its annual Prime Day promotion in July, Amazon gave voice shoppers a head start of two hours.

Amazon says voice shopping has grown in the year-plus it’s had it, though it wouldn’t release figures. “We’re really just getting started with it,” Blackburn said in an interview.

Voice’s limited range

Blackburn said voice shopping works best for products with “lightweight decisions,” such as batteries, cat food and paper towels. Sure, Alexa can order you a TV, but you’ll probably want to do some research first.

Nels Romerdahl, a student at the University of Hawaii in Maui, said Alexa can be a big improvement over Amazon Dash buttons - plastic gadgets that can you place around the house and press anytime you need to reorder a specific item. But he doesn’t use either Alexa or Dash for recurring items - he stocks up when his parents visit Costco every few weeks.

To prevent inadvertent orders, like the widely circulated report from a local television station of a 6-year-old girl who had Alexa order a dollhouse and sugar cookies for Christmas, Amazon lets you set up a PIN you can recite to the assistant. Amazon disputes the report, saying someone would have had to say “yes” before the order went through.

To boost comfort, Amazon promises free returns on voice orders; normally, Amazon charges a shipping fee for returns unless the company’s at fault.

That might not satisfy everyone. Los Angeles attorney Pam Meyer, who bought some dog treats through Alexa to claim her $10 credit, said she’d want something like a cash-back guarantee when Alexa doesn’t offer the best price.


Update September 9, 2017

Former CIA agent wants to buy Twitter to kick Trump off

 

In this June. 21, 2011, file photo, former U.S. CIA Operations Officer, Valerie Plame Wilson arrives for the UK film premiere of Countdown to Zero in London. Wilson launched an online fundraiser on Aug. 18, 2017, looking to raise enough money to buy Twitter so President Donald Trump can’t use it. (AP Photo/Jonathan Short, File)

Washington (AP) - Former undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson is looking to crowdfund enough money to buy Twitter so President Donald Trump can’t use it.

Wilson launched the fundraiser last week, tweeting: “If @Twitter executives won’t shut down Trump’s violence and hate, then it’s up to us. #BuyTwitter #BanTrump.” The GoFundMe page for the fundraiser says Trump’s tweets “damage the country and put people in harm’s way.”

As of Wednesday morning, she had raised less than $6,000 of her $1 billion goal.

In an emailed statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the low total shows that the American people like the Republican president’s use of Twitter.

“Her ridiculous attempt to shut down his first amendment is the only clear violation and expression of hate and intolerance in this equation,” the statement read.

Wilson wrote on the fundraiser’s GoFundMe page that she hopes to raise enough money to buy a controlling interest of Twitter stock. If she doesn’t have enough to purchase a majority of shares, she said, she will explore options to buy “a significant stake” and champion the proposal at Twitter’s annual shareholder meeting.

If Plame were to hit her $1 billion goal, she’d still fall far short of gaining a controlling interest in the company. As of Wednesday, a majority stake would cost roughly $6 billion. But a $1 billion stake would make her Twitter’s largest shareholder and give her a very strong position to exert influence on the company.

Twitter declined to comment Wednesday on Wilson’s tweet about seeking to buy the San Francisco-based company.

Wilson’s identity as a CIA operative was leaked by an official in President George W. Bush’s administration in 2003 in an effort to discredit her husband, Joe Wilson, a former diplomat who criticized Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. She left the agency in 2005.


Update September 2, 2017

New supercomputer seen as big boost for science, Wyoming

Cheyenne, Wyo. (AP) - One of the world’s fastest super­computers is helping scientists better understand the sun’s behavior and predict weather months in advance but also got touted Tuesday as an important tool for diversifying Wyoming’s economy, which has seen better days.

The new supercomputer named Cheyenne, located at a National Center for Atmospheric Research facility on the outskirts of Wyoming’s capital city, is the world’s 22nd fastest. Put to work earlier this year, Cheyenne is three times faster yet three times more efficient than its predecessor, a machine called Yellowstone.

The NCAR-Wyoming Super­computing Center housing both machines is an important tool for recruiting tech businesses and keeping students interested in computers from leaving Wyoming to seek their fortunes elsewhere, Gov. Matt Mead said at a dedication for the new machine Tuesday.

The facility also is an important tool for research into hydrology, ways to trap carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired power plants and other science important to Wyoming, he said.

“What it shows in Wyoming is that we’re not only trying to broaden and diversify the economy, we care about the results,” Mead said.

Wyoming produces about 40 percent of the nation’s coal. In 2016, the U.S. coal industry had its worst year in four decades amid competition from cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas as utilities’ preferred fuel for generating electricity. Meanwhile, renewables such as wind and solar are increasingly competitive.

The coal downturn has hit Wyoming’s economy hard. But the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center completed five years ago has helped attract other types of business including a Microsoft data center just across the street, Mead said.

“For me, when we think about the economic benefits, they’re tremendous. When we think about the pride in Wyoming citizens, it’s tremendous,” Mead said.

Early work on the new supercomputer includes modeling of space weather - flares ejected by the sun that can affect satellites, communications and even the power grid. Scientists using the machine also are developing ways to better predict weather up to three months out, said University Corporation for Atmospheric Research President Antonio Busalacchi.

“This timescale is critical for businesses, agriculture and for our military, who need reliable forecasts of longer-term weather forecasts,” Busalacchi said.

Cheyenne and Yellowstone will operate side-by-side until the National Center for Atmospheric Research retires Yellowstone later this year.


The top iPhone and iPad apps on App Store

The Associated Press

App Store Official Charts for the week ending August 6, 2017:

Top Paid iPhone Apps:

1. Minecraft: Pocket Edition, Mojang

2. Heads Up!, Warner Bros.

3. The Escapists, Team17 Software Ltd

4. Plague Inc., Ndemic Creations

5. Bloons TD 5, Ninja Kiwi

6. Facetune, Lightricks Ltd.

7. MONOPOLY Game, Electronic Arts

8. iSchedule, HotSchedules

9. True Skate, True Axis

10. Scribblenauts Remix, Warner Bros.

Top Free iPhone Apps:

1. Sarahah, ZainAlabdin Tawfiq

2. YouTube - Watch Videos, Music,..., Google, Inc.

3. Instagram, Instagram, Inc.

4. Snapchat, Snap, Inc.

5. Messenger, Facebook, Inc.

6. Facebook, Facebook, Inc.

7. Bitmoji - Your Personal Emoji, Bitstrips

8. Google Maps - Navigation & Tra..., Google, Inc.

9. Snake VS Block, Voodoo

10. Netflix, Netflix, Inc.

Top Paid iPad Apps:

1. Minecraft: Pocket Edition, Mojang

2. The Escapists, Team17 Software Ltd

3. Notability, Ginger Labs

4. Procreate - Sketch, paint, cre..., Savage Interactive Pty Ltd

5. The Emoji Movie Maker, AppMoji, Inc.

6. Terraria, 505 Games (US), Inc.

7. Geometry Dash, RobTop Games AB

8. Scribblenauts Remix, Warner Bros.

9. Minecraft: Story Mode - Season..., Telltale Inc

10. Five Nights at Freddy’s, Scott Cawthon

Top Free iPad Apps:

1. YouTube - Watch Videos, Music,..., Google, Inc.

2. Netflix, Netflix, Inc.

3. Strawberry Shortcake Ice Cream, Budge Studios

4. Flippy Knife, Oleg Beresnev

5. Bowmasters - Top Multi­player B..., Playgendary

6. ROBLOX, Roblox Corporation

7. Snake VS Block, Voodoo

8. Gymnastics Superstar - Get a P..., Coco Play

9. Messenger, Facebook, Inc.

10. Facebook, Facebook, Inc.
 


DAILY UPDATE

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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Shopping by voice on Amazon or Google device could cost you


Former CIA agent wants to buy Twitter to kick Trump off


New supercomputer seen as big boost for science, Wyoming

The top iPhone and iPad apps on App Store


 



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