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It’s time for eBay to innovate again

By Chris Dawson April 21, 2016 - 10:29 pm

The Internet is changing faster than ever before and that’s a challenge for retailers. It’s also a challenge for marketplaces and eBay, once the world leader not just in marketplaces but in commerce innovation, are starting to lag behind.

eBay have had many many world leading innovations over the past 20 years, but what about the next couple of decades? Let’s take a look at eBay and the Internet’s history and try to predict the future:

The Modem Age

ModemI remember fondly my flat mate getting a work laptop with a 14.4k dial up modem and having my first glimpse into the world of the Internet. CompuServe and AOL ruled the world and wanted to own the content you could access. You had to do the virtual “Ask nicely” to be allowed off AOL’s content and to view the world wide web itself.

28.8k, 33.6k, 56k modems came and went with very few able to afford 64k ISDN lines, but then broadband proliferated and suddenly rich content was the order of the day. More and bigger images, video, gaming, messaging and Skype and video messaging become the norm rather than the exception.

The Pre-Mobile Age

eBay old logo feateBay and Amazon flourished, but this was a desktop experience and having an image on an eBay listing was the exception rather than the norm. eBay democratised selling online enabling any business or consumer to sell around the world.

At this time Amazon was little more than a jumped up Internet book store and eBay ruled the world of online commerce.

The Mobile Age

eBay Mobile SiteeBay bet big on mobile and were one of the first to have a fully operational mobile website. I remember wap.eBay.co.uk (no longer operational) and the the first proper m.eBay.co.uk mobile site.

Then again, almost a decade ago eBay went even bolder and made a ballsy move to be ahead of the game, creating what was to become the world’s most popular mobile app.

In 2008 when hardly everyone owned a smartphone, eBay predicted the future and made a massive mobile investment. At the time the success of the eBay mobile app was impossible to imagine but there always have been some very smart people working at eBay and they got it right. Very right.

eBay App v4 feateBay was an innovator and mobile was the future that they bet the company on and the bet paid off giving eBay a head start on the competition and a position in the market which has carried them through the last decade.

Now however eBay have stopped innovating. They’ve had no major innovation since mobile and they’re about to lose their cutting edge market leading position to their arch rival Amazon.

The Post-Mobile Age

We’re about to enter the post mobile age of the Internet. It may be hard to envisage but the mobile in your pocket is in reality about as inconvenient to use as the days when you had to plug your modem into your landline and wait while your modem chirped as it dialed up to your ISP.

Think about it, you have to take your mobile out of your pocket, wake it up possibly with a fingerprint recognition, open an app or browser, type in your search term or perhaps use speech recognition. It’s all very last decade and a bit tiresome. If only there was an easier way to get online… and there is.

Amazon Echo is the shape of the future

At Catalyst Connect in London this week, David Spitz, CEO of ChannelAdvisor recounted how Amazon Echo changed his whole family’s life.

Amazon EchoAmazon Echo is always on, always listening and she has a name – Alexa. All you have to do is speak a command and Alexa is ready to respond… “Alexa, will it rain today?”, “Alexa, remind me to buy loo roll”, “Alexa, when’s my next appointment?”.

I’m a bit old fashioned, if I need to remind myself of something I tend to send myself an email. That way I’ll have a message at the top of my inbox. One day soon I’ll have a device always listening acting as a personal assistant who will be able to handle reminders for me.

David told the Catalyst Connect audience how his young son started to interact with Alexa. First he told Alexa to add a toy to the shopping list and unlike asking mummy or daddy for a toy and being told “No”, Alexa simply responded “I’ve added a toy to your shopping list”. That was great so he added more toys, then asked Alexa to add 1000 million toys and Alexa said it was done. For a young boy this was just too fantastic so he simply told Alexa to add every toy in the world to the shopping list and Alexa responded that she had.

A young boy adding toys to the shopping list sounds cute, but Amazon are really onto something here. We don’t want to use an old fashioned mobile app. I don’t want to be emailing myself for the rest of my life.

Adding reminders to your calendar, reading out information such as news or weather reports, ordering products which Amazon will then automatically deliver and bill you for, turning on the lights, adjusting the heating, playing an Amazon Prime movie on your TV, starting a play list from Amazon Music… these are just the things that Amazon Echo can do today. Developers can create apps for Echo to add new functions and you can bet that many of these will be commerce related from ordering pizza to booking cinema tickets and of course buying products.

Amazon aren’t stopping with Amazon Echo, they’ve also got the Amazon Dash buttons which will automatically reorder product for you without any intervention required.

The mobile age is done. Welcome to the Internet of Things

The mobile age of the Internet was a fantastic time to be online and I’ve loved it. It’s a bit old fashioned now and in another decade we’ll look back fondly on it as we do today at modems and early slow speed broadband. Now everywhere you turn there are smart watches, wearable devices, the Internet of Things (IoT) where devices themselves are connected online.

Very soon practically every house in the country will have a smart electric and gas meter which communicates with the power companies for billing and lets you know which devices in your house are devouring electricity. We’ll soon have self driving cars and already have devices connected to the Internet to give us directions. I love how Google Maps can divert me onto an alternate route if there’s an accident or congestion ahead.

What about eBay?

eBay New Logo FeatThat brings me back to eBay. eBay innovated and democratised online selling. eBay democratised online payments with PayPal. eBay democratised cross border trade enabling both consumers and businesses to sell around the world. eBay were the early innovators with mobile. But what about tomorrow?

Are eBay about to be left in a mobile age as the Internet enters a post mobile age? As David Spitz said in his keynote at Catalyst Connect, the pace of change for retailers is still accelerating and we’ve whizzed through the mobile age in the blink of an eye. David didn’t specifically call out eBay as being left behind. He did however highlight Amazon as being leading innovators in the post mobile age. What do you think?

  • Andy R
    11 months ago

    Ebay needs to go back to how it was in the earlier days.

    A simple place to buy and sell without the grief and hassles it has now.

    Sure, enable all types of devices to work properly.

    But Ebay has to deal with its ongoing daily technical problems before it does ANYTHING else.

    If people can’t log in, search and buy, they’re f****d

  • Tinker
    11 months ago

    ebay has the money to copy or buy the next innovation ,they dont need to worry, it we silly buggers that have to worry

    • Tinker
      11 months ago

      Rather than chasing the rainbow, ebay should fix the hole in roof

  • Steve
    11 months ago

    eBay needs to start looking after its customers and make trading a fun save and enjoyable environment again before developing and implementing any more unwanted problems.

  • ifellow
    11 months ago

    Ebay should rebuild the whole site, eBay 2.0. The sites look and function is too old, managing sales etc is a nightmare. The front end seems to be years old.

  • Sam O'levski
    11 months ago

    Is there not still room for people who liked browsing the old flea markets, rummaging in boxes in a traditional auction room looking for a hidden gem etc ?
    Isn’t that what is being destroyed by all this modern regimented style of ebay ?
    I can understand someone who wants to buy an exact brand and style of trendy jeans or trainers preferring what you are describing as progress, but there has to be a way to keep the original concept alive as well.
    There must still be enough people out there who want to hunt for a postcard of their home town used a hundred years ago, or a 1920’s part tea set which they can enjoy adding bits to, and pretend they’re living just like Aunt Gertrude used to ?

    • The Cobbler
      11 months ago

      You may be in luck .. subject to how ebay allow searching and displaying of results. All the indications I get from ebay is that they are going to spin-off the auction side and have it as a separate site. In the last six months I have been advised numerous times to change my listings from fixed price to auction, ( this is after the last few years the same type of listings being pushed over to fixed price) , the 99p listings starting price has been re-marketed to me, numerous free listings offers .. I just get the feeling they want to boost the auction side of things .. maybe ready for a spin off..

    • Sam O'levski
      11 months ago

      Isn’t this pushing of auctions down to the trend by many sellers to list their stuff as fixed price – there was a lot of debate on the discussion boards over a year ago about how auctions got so few views and bids for all but a lucky few sellers with a loyal following, that fixed price was the best option.
      The demise of the 100 x 99p free listings didn’t do auctions any favours either.
      I view the recent glut of free listings as an attempt by ebay to experiment in order to find out how to boost the number of sales and buyers, as they’re certainly not doing it out of kindness.
      A couple of years ago I was moaning about how unfair it was that ebay.com sellers had a seemingly endless supply of promos compared to our measly 100 a month, and so perhaps someone at ebay has decided to see if letting us list almost as much as we want, will actually improve the overall usage of the site as well as put more money in eBay’s coffers.

  • steve
    11 months ago

    Thinking back to the boy who ordered all the toys in the world. .. ebay wouldnt be able to find half of them. He would probably get hand bags and led lights.

    • Tinker
      11 months ago

      Yeah ,probably click and collect from the darkside of the moon with customs and handling fees

  • Toby
    11 months ago

    There is a fundemental problem at Ebay…. they still think that they control what people want. They tell us about these ‘fantasy’ buyers that tell them things, but i have yet to meet one!
    All the time people have choice you can encourage them to do something but you can’t force them…. they simply go else where.
    If they want to innovate i would start by going back to basics and supporting buyers and coming down on scammers… The reputation of ebay is shot to pieces with buyers and sellers. The Chinese free run has created a ‘race to the bottom’ price wise for sellers and this creates a imagine of cheap tat to buyers and no margins for sellers.
    All in all over the last 10 years i have seen ebay not only fall behind others in the sales space but also lose its way so badly that i question if anyone is actually running it and instead just a random action programme is running the show.
    Look at Apple…. they said no one wants big smart phones…. then as the evidence built up they accepted that it wasnt what they thought but what the consumer wanted that mattered and bingo! Larger Iphones.
    Well for many many years the sellers on ebay have been screaming at ebay with needs and wants…. yet they heard silence. Now they are going elsewhere in droves… still silence. A shopping centre with no shops will not be popular with customers no matter what wonderful things ebay states.
    So before ebay can inovate again…. it needs to get the basics right again.

    • james
      11 months ago

      it speaks volumes when every ebay “typical buyer”, is a paid model who’s never actually used ebay, but will say he does if you pay him enough.
      “we understand so little about our customers, we had to make some up”.

  • james
    11 months ago

    how on earth is allowing the child to charge “every toy in the world” to your account possibly a good thing?

    “Alexa, send me big sharp knives!” said the 6-year old.

    this is just begging for something to go horribly, horribly, wrong.

  • Gerard
    11 months ago

    Let’s not get carried away here. The internet of things is slowly, arduously coming together for a few major players (Google, Amazon, Apple etc.) but we’re still a long, long way off from objects being integrated across the board. Try and use Mac ports of PC programmes and you’ll know what I mean. The Amazon Echo sounds nice and fancy if your life revolves around Amazon, but sometimes it’s actually nice to have the sense of effort in buying something. Of going local and seeing someone’s face. The thrill’s in the chase after all.

    Let’s not even get started on the political ramifications should one of these companies be deemed as stepping beyond their remit. Apple put themselves in a very difficult situation specifically because if they let the American government into one phone (thereby effectively granting them control over a whole life of bank codes, passwords and private data) then it was only a matter of time before criminals would work it out.

    I’m not a luddite, I just think we’ve got a lot of time to get through before the kinks get ironed out.

  • john
    11 months ago

    ebay neglected it’s core usp long ago; the auction format. It’s all but dead now. Now ebay is just a stale buy it now amazon rip off where the high fees make many other venues more cheaper.

    The thrill of trying to find a bargain and chasing that auction is all but gone. So what is unique about ebay now? Nothing.

    As for amazon echo; its prolly lovely if you speak without a dialect; any sort of twang makes it a massively frustrating experience. That coupled with the piss poor mobile network once you get out of a city centre = fail. We are a long way off from that utopia I fear.

  • Tony C
    11 months ago

    The thing with the ‘Internet of Things’ is that all the designers these days presume that all of mankind is within the reach of ultra-high-speed wireless broadband all of the time, like as if everyone lives in London. Fortunately there are still areas where there’s not even any phone signal, but it seems that everything these days requires an Internet connection. Until this universal connection assumption is completely true – heaven forbid! – then this IoT thing won’t work properly.

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