Printers must learn to go with Flow


Earlier this month Amazon launched an app update that has been described as a major threat to traditional retailers. However, not everyone is running scared as the opportunities may be significant.

While retailers might at first be fearful of Amazon’s latest app enhancement, the online behemoth’s vote of confidence in mobile image recognition might just be the shot in the arm that print-to-mobile technology needs to drive the mass adoption advocates have been predicting for years.

In essence, Amazon Flow works by enabling consumers to photograph a piece of packaging on a smartphone, which, through image recognition technology, maps multiple points on the image or text against a database of “tens of millions” of US products, which then links to the matched product on Amazon.

“Flow instantly matches products in your home to items on Amazon,” said Sam Hall, vice-president of Amazon Mobile in a statement.

“Once you have added that box of garbage bags or baby wipes, just keep moving your phone over other packaged goods you need, and the Amazon app recognizes the product and saves it into your search history. You can search items lined up on the counter, stored on a shelf or pick them out of a cupboard, taking care of your shopping needs in seconds.”

While Amazon itself is pushing the benefits of Flow to consumers who shop for groceries online, it doesn’t take a genius to recognise the potential ramifications on a broad range
of  retailers. The implementation
of image recognition technology gives consumers a quick and convenient way of comparing the prices of more expensive non-food goods after they have evaluated them fully instore, by simply photographing the product’s packaging, or perhaps even the product itself, and then searching for it cheaper online and, if successful, purchasing it instantly via Amazon.

“It’s a real headache for shops and brand owners because in effect they’re becoming the free showrooms of Amazon,” said Robert Berkeley, founder and chairman of Linkz-IM, which develops invisible marker print-to-mobile technology.

Of course, with the advent of smartphones, in some respects consumers have had this ability for years. Amazon Flow itself has been available as a standalone app for several years, and the ability to scan barcodes and compare instore prices against online rivals is nothing new and is available though numerous apps.

Game-changer

However, Amazon’s move is seen by some as ‘game-changer’ for image recognition technologies and interactive print and packaging.

“Now it’s been embraced by Amazon, anybody who doubted image recognition and interactive print was going to happen might want to think about washing their mouth out with soap and water,” said Peter Lancaster, founder of Documobi, an app-based image
recognition platform that is similar in some ways to Flow.

This is echoed by Berkeley: “The important effect will be that it raises consumer awareness that you can pick up a smartphone, engage with a piece of print or packaging and get a result – and that’s no bad thing.”

The latest addition to Amazon’s digital arsenal is designed predominately for iPhones running iOS 7 and has been described by several US reviewers as “superfast”. While the technology isn’t flawless, not always directing consumers to the exact product, as Amazon grows its database, few doubt the wrinkles will be ironed out fairly rapidly. It’s currently only available in the US, but it could be launched in the UK in a matter of months, according to Lancaster.

“Amazon has proved that the image recognition technology works. Suddenly this is a massive threat to anyone who sells anything. It’s not about QR codes, it’s not about NFC, it’s not about augmented reality – this is what we’ve been saying for two years. Hopefully now the brand owners and print industry will understand the threat and, more importantly, the opportunity,” said Lancaster.

But Berkeley believes that in some ways Flow is only a threat if retailers try to compete with Amazon’s app head on.

“Flow doesn’t have to be just bad news for retailers or brands. The response has got to be to put something better in the consumer’s mind than just the discounted Amazon price, perhaps special offers or reward – basically anything that creates a kind of value that Amazon  can’t offer,” he said.

Both Berkeley and Lancaster agree that, until now, print-to-mobile
technology has largely only appealed to major retailers and brands, but once it’s been ‘blooded’ by Amazon, adoption rates will rapidly accelerate, which could represent a significant opportunity for printers.

“Whether things like Amazon Flow are good or bad is irrelevant, it’s inevitable, it’s technology, it’s happening and you have to look at a positive trend otherwise you just throw up your hands. The positive trend is an increase in consumer awareness and that this sort of technology is day-to-day, normal,” said Berkeley.

And once Amazon has used its unrivalled consumer influence to normalise print-to-mobile technology, then in theory at least that could speed up the technology’s marketing opportunities for well-placed printers’ clients. 

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