I drive a rental car through the rich gray green of overwatered, undersunned Seattle suburbs that border a city rising like a prize at the end of the road. The trees are the color of dried oregano, the air dense and wet. I’m going into Amazon country to meet Jeff Bezos, the king of this lush land.
. . . .
“A third leg of our strategy and vision is going to reveal itself,” he says.
I was ready. He got up to scribble on the board like a professor in a catch-up session. He outlined the three legs of Amazon’s success – the keys to the kingdom in blue dry-erase ink. “We sell premium products at non-premium prices. We make money when people use our devices, not when they buy them. I see people with five-year-old kindle ereaders and I don’t have to be discouraged by that. They don’t have to be on the upgrade treadmill,” he says.
“The third one, which is new, is the intersection of customer delight and deep integration throughout the entire stack. One of the hardest and coolest things that you might do occurs right here. When I talk about the entire stack I’m thinking about hardware at the bottom, the OS, the key apps, cloud, and even services on top of that.”
. . . .
He picks up a Kindle HDX and swipes down from the top. A list of icons appears. There was a new, unfamiliar one that looked like a little life-preserver.
“We’ll click on this button here,” he says. “It’s called Mayday. What do you think that will do?”
A little window pops and a smiling Amazon tech appears. “Hi, I’m Dylan. I see you activated Mayday. How can I help you?”
It was a canned demo, to be sure – Dylan definitely knew his boss was about to call – but it was a fascinatingly human moment. Dylan kept smiling throughout.
“Hi Dylan, it’s Jeff here, I’m going to show off Mayday,” says Bezos. “One of the things happening with these devices is they’re sophisticated enough and they have quite a number of settings.”
He calls Mayday “on-device tech support.”
“Dylan, first of all, move yourself on the screen. Maybe move yourself onto the upper right hand corner for a second.”
Dylan’s window moves into a corner.
“What’s a hot game that everybody’s buying these days?” he asks.
Dylan brings up Angry Birds Star Wars II. Bezos, the guy who runs all this stuff, needed a little help picking a game.
“We think mostly people will want to be taught how to do things but we can show them as well. This service is 24/7, it’s free, and we set an internal goal of answering Mayday sessions in 15 seconds or less.”
“Doing this requires a lot of heavy lifting.”
Bezos says he’ll be ready for Christmas morning when support usage spikes. He talks about how difficult it is to do tech support over the phone and how hard it is to get this thing to work. There was a concerted effort to build this from the core of the device, all the way down to the packets transmitted to ensure a good connection.
“Are we in charge of our devices or are our devices in charge of us?” he asks. With Mayday he hopes to put control back into the hands of the users.
“What are you guys now? Are you a hardware company now or services company,” I ask.
“Yes. People always ask me this one. ‘Are you a technology company or a reseller?’ And I would say yes. We’re a technology company and we use technology and everything else to help our customers.”
. . . .
“How would you feel if you never had to ship a CD or a book again?” I ask. I wanted to know if he would be happy never having to ship another physical box.
“I think that’s going to take a very long time. What we’re finding right now is that even our heaviest Kindle ebook customers are still buying physical books. We’re seeing a lot of vinyl sales.”
“Clearly if you look far enough into the future, I don’t know how many years, it’s very rapidly going towards digital items. Our point of view is that we did the very best we can in the physical media products and the digital media products and our customers choose what they like best.”
“But you’re a guy who has a bunch of warehouses. Would you be happy on that day?” I ask.
“To take it out of philosophical into the practical, we sell a lot of shoes and diapers. For Amazon, it’s not just about media products. The vast percentage of what we do is non-media products. It’s mixers, diapers, and shoes. It’s stuff you can’t download. Even the very best 3D printers can’t print a tablet.”
“I think 3D printing is one of those incredibly exciting arenas. We’ll have to see how it interacts with Amazon but it’s too early to see. We have Createspace to make books and we do similar things for music CDs,” he says.
. . . .
Amazon isn’t a tech company or a reseller or a services company. It’s a centralized repository for commerce. Products flow in and leave with as little friction as possible. When you have a problem you simply write a few lines and your return is processed. When your Kindle breaks, you press a button and Dylan pops into your world and helps you out. When something slips, Bezos knows how to route around the damage.