The Grocers are coming! - Ocado Smart Platform is a rival for Amazon

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AWS is a world-class software development and execution platform. But it grew out of an online bookshop. Now other eCommerce players like Ocado and Alibaba are attempting something similar.

My thought is that these eCommerce companies may be successful because they are a priori focused on building business outcomes – selling books, groceries and so on – rather than just on building neat technology.

So, it might be interesting to look at these newcomers and what they are doing.

Ocado is well-known as an online grocer. However, as well as its own online grocery, it sells its technology as a PaaS for other online retailers, as Computer Weekly commented a couple of years ago.

It competes with AmazonFresh and is now attempting to disrupt online logistics for the grocery marketplace: “Ocado is no longer just a grocery retailer. Employing 1,200 developers, engineers, data scientists, and robotics engineers, it is clear that it is fast becoming a technology company. Much like Amazon, Ocado is making a move to digitally disrupt its market.” – read original article here.

Ocado’s disruptive secret weapon is the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP): “our world-class suite of solutions for operating online grocery businesses.  Built to change the nature of grocery eCommerce globally, these solutions are uniquely capable of meeting the complex and developing expectations of shoppers, while driving better productivity, greater flexibility, and higher margins for grocery retailers online” according to the original article.

This does raise some questions in my mind – it still seems grocery-focused and yet it would presumably revolutionise logistics for any online shop? I’d have thought that one would build a general robotised eCommerce platform and customise it for groceries. Perhaps this is something that it’d be fun to talk over with Ocado.

What we have, apparently, is a smart, robot-based, logistics mesh platform: “OSP includes a new and innovative automation fulfilment solution in the form of a modular robotic grid. This underpins the warehousing and logistics service Ocado provides to its global partners”. See here.

In fact, Cambridge Consultants might be the really interesting people to talk to about OSP. It claims to have delivered:

A world-first communication system. To deliver maximum efficiency, the smart platform needed to control thousands of fast-moving robots simultaneously, each to within a fraction of a second. No existing technology came close. So, we designed a robust solution combining tried-and-tested building blocks and innovative new technology developed specifically for Ocado. The end result is a breakthrough in radio design – the most densely packed cellular network in the world. It’s also scalable, with the capacity to handle up to 20 times the number of current movements” – op cit.

And it is not just Ocado trying to produce a new eCommerce development platform. The Alibaba Open Platform, a PaaS which is huge in the far east (although rather patchily implemented in the West) is also targeting AWS. Its offering is a cloud-native platform built on a Kubernetes foundation and aimed particularly at stateful apps. Alibaba is promising to “promote the cloud-native transformation of the entire application delivery system to make application delivery more efficient and standardized”; see this Jan 2020 paper here.

I haven’t had a chance to talk to Alibaba about this yet, but, on the face of it, it doesn’t seem quite as logistics- and robot-focused as Ocado’s Smart Platform, although I don’t think the Alibaba Open Platform should be ignored. This Harvard Business Review article from the end of 2018 explains why Alibaba is interesting.

So, that is just two eCommerce companies looking to take on Amazon, eBay and so on with disruptive solutions. I wonder how many others I could find out there if I looked?

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