Jeff Bezos has a big laugh. It's a shotgun; a booming sound that reverberates through a room. It can be a little scary, actually. It is not subtle, gentle, or otherwise restrained. But when he does laugh — which is often — it is a laugh trained squarely on the room. Not inward, but outward. A laugh that says: there's fun to be had, so join in.
To say that Bezos is one of America's most accomplished and prolific businessmen would be an understatement. In a little under two decades, he went from wide-eyed internet soothsayer and humble online bookseller to superstar — nay, titan — of a new industry. Several industries actually, and counting; industries he helped to shape, and continues to define as he expands Amazon's reach (and his own, having just purchased one of the country's oldest newspapers, The Washington Post).
So why is he sitting across from me demoing the new features of a $229 tablet?
There are probably a dozen reasons Jeff Bezos wants to talk to the press about the latest crop of Kindle Fire tablets, collectively called the Fire HDX. Surely he's excited about the faster CPUs, 2GB of RAM, new LTE options, and impressive updates to Amazon's take on Android, Fire OS. Perhaps he's giddy about the leather, magnetized "Origami" covers which bend and twist into all sorts of shapes to help you keep your device upright on flat surfaces, or the crazy new Mayday feature, which lets Amazon support reps remotely assist you. Without question he wants to make sure the company sells a bunch of these things. But none of those reasons are the exact reason.
My conversation with Bezos takes place inside one of Amazon’s 14 buildings in Seattle. Viewed from the outside, the contemporary structure and its courtyard look like something on a planet visited by the crew of the Starship Enterprise, circa Next Generation. Clean, untainted, plant life everywhere. Murder as punishment for falling into a bed of flowers, one assumes. Back up in the room, Jeff Bezos sits in front of a blank whiteboard. After pleasantries are exchanged, he leaps to his feet and begins writing. He starts in on the mantras of Amazon’s e-reader and tablet business. Mantra one: premium products at non-premium prices. Mantra two: "We make money when people use our devices." Jeff jots them down quickly on the board. “Some of this you knew already because you've been following us, but I'm going to lay out what a third part of our vision and strategy.”
Keep in mind, the current "vision and strategy" seems to be working quite well. Amazon said last year that it had nabbed an impressive 22 percent of the tablet market, and analysis from Pew Research and others seems to confirm the footprint, a growing footprint. The company won't actually say how many devices it's sold beyond "millions," which seems to mean "tens of millions," though executives I asked would not give specifics. Still, in just two generations Amazon has become a formidable presence in a market where Apple previously had no reasonable competitors and no reason to worry.
"I’m about to take you into jaw-drop zone."
Bezos draws a Venn diagram on the board. On the left side it reads "customer delight,” on the right, “deep integration throughout entire stack.” "This intersection, here, is some of the hardest to do," he smiles, "and [where the] coolest customer delight features live."
Delight might just get to the core of what Bezos is trying to do. While there's no question he is a driven businessman, similar to visionaries such as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, he seems to legitimately get excited by the power of what his products can do, not just by the revenue they generate. Compared to the stodgy, dispassionate executives that sit at the helm of many of his competitors, it makes an impression. And it's infectious.
He runs me through a handful of the new software features, surprisingly engaged in the minutiae: improved X-Ray for video and music along with a new second-screen experience, performance enhancements and general software cleanup, those new Origami covers. But that's all just lead up to the delight — to that big laugh. "Now, I’m going to show you a feature that’s in that intersection."
"We aren't in the delight zone yet?" I ask.
"Well, if our beta testers are any indication, I’m about to take you into jaw-drop zone."
Jaw-dropping isn't exactly how I would describe Mayday, the halo feature of the new Fire HDX — but it is impressive in many ways, particularly because of how much energy has been put into simply helping people use the device. Remember, Amazon makes money when people use the devices. But Bezos seems genuinely bummed at the idea that people wouldn't be able to get the most out of their Fire.
"The context for this is that there’s a degree to which for many, many people these devices have become complex enough that sometimes we get them set up the way we want and then we don’t mess with them." He swings the device around so that I can see the screen. "The settings, even features you only use once every couple of months, you forget how to. So tech support for these devices is important." Bezos taps a Mayday button which is now part of the Quick Settings menu on the Fire. A small window pops over screen, and an Amazon-shirted tech support staffer named Dylan appears in a tiny video box. "Thanks for using Amazon Assist, I see you’ve hit the Mayday button. I’ll be your tech advisor."
The concept is simple: you ping Amazon for help, and a pleasant video-buddy appears to guide you through any questions or problems you might have. The Mayday feature gives tech support complete access to and control over your device, though most of the time they'll be teaching you how to use it instead of operating the tablet for you. They have a full view of your screen, but you can only see their head in the video window. The screen sharing can be turned off, but only by the support staff’s choosing or a user’s request — which you might make if you're inputting a password. The cleverest bit is that the Amazon rep is able to draw on your screen, like football plays on a chalkboard. Swipe down to access your Quick Settings, tap Brightness: hut, hut, hike. "We can see Dylan, and he can hear us, but he can’t see us. We did it that way for a couple of reasons. One, it preserves bandwidth for the more important side of the conversation, two the customer doesn’t have to worry about what they are or aren’t wearing," Bezos says with a smile.
The concept is simple: you ping Amazon for help, and a pleasant video-buddy appears to guide you through any questions or problems you might have
Not only can tech support help you learn, they can direct you to content. Delight, revenue. "Dylan, let’s start with something super simple. I’m hoping you can help me, what’s super hot these days, what’s everybody buying?"
"Everybody is playing Angry Birds Star Wars 2. It’s super fun, so go and tap on ‘Apps,'" Dylan suggests. Over the next several minutes I get a demo of Mayday, playing a confused user who needs to change their screen timeout, or a curious novice looking for a great new app. The software is seamless, the support impeccable, and my privacy only feels slightly at risk. It is impressive on several levels. I tell Bezos about a Venn diagram it makes me think of.
"On the left side would be delight," I say as I motion to his drawing, "and on the right side would be fear." Off goes that booming, staccato laugh. "This is one of the things that I think Amazon is uniquely suited for, which is that marriage of high-tech and heavy lifting. So throughout our entire corporate history, we’ve happily lived by marrying those two things together. It’s in service of customer delight, but you can only do it if you integrate that entire stack." Okay, yes. But, should I be worried about my privacy here?
Bezos doesn't get into details on the technical aspects of the security for Mayday, but tells me you can disable the service if it makes you uncomfortable. "Yeah, you can say you don’t want it, and set a setting to take it off your device, but you’d be disabling the greatest feature we’ve ever made!" But Mayday gives an Amazon rep unfettered access to my device, no? "It's not unfettered," he says, "it has to be initiated by the customer." And it's true. This isn't an open node just sitting there — you have to want to use it. Needless to say, the company doesn't sound worried about privacy and security — and maybe I'm being paranoid — but in the cold light of PRISM revelations, complete control over your tablet by a third-party may not be something every consumer feels bullish about.
Bezos has a different view — a long view. "Everything we’ve ever done people have said this. People said customer reviews were a bad idea, third-party selling is a bad idea, personalization is a bad idea," and he does have a point. "In 1994, typing your credit card [info] on the internet is a bad idea. Every single thing that’s new is a bad idea." And then Bezos repeats one his best rehearsed and most convincing soundbites. "Willingness to be misunderstood is one of our greatest strengths."
Bezos may be willing to be misunderstood, but people learned a long time ago not to underestimate his business prowess and foresight. There may have been surprise at his purchase of The Washington Post, but no one thinks it was a lark. Recently he visited his new acquisition, "My impression was people are super excited [at the Post], and excited about the future! They’re optimistic ... When you look at the business challenges of newspapers, it’s not because the teams aren’t great. It’s because the industry is fundamentally challenged by the transitions created by the internet. There are different situations in business where the business results are not good because the team hasn’t been doing a good job, this is not the case." Will he buy other papers? "No, I don’t think so," he says flatly.
"Yeah, you can say you don’t want it, and set a setting to take it off your device, but you’d be disabling the greatest feature we’ve ever made!"
What about a phone? Bezos won't comment on future plans — though there has been heavy speculation that smartphones are the next big frontier for Amazon. And the company's relationship with Google? It's a strange symbiosis, since the Fire line is based on Android and plugs deeply into the OS that Google has built — yet there are no Google services to speak of. Is there potential for a better relationship? A Google and Amazon partnership has always seemed like a union with incredible potential, but it hasn't broken that way. "It’s the kind of thing that we’d always be extremely open to, but I don’t want to speculate on the future." I ask if that's something customers have asked for.
"People tend to focus on the ecosystem overall, and so when customers think about the ecosystem, they’re thinking about Prime Instant Videos, and Kindle ebooks. We have over 100,000 apps, it’s up 187 percent year over year. The platform monetizes really well for developers; [with] Fire OS, we work extremely hard to keep it compatible from a developer point of view, [it requires] almost zero work. That’s what’s making our ecosystem work."
And it is working. It's working like gangbusters. During the conversation — knocking around between moments of true hilarity and brass tacks business — I started to see Amazon as a kind of Venn diagram itself, sort of like the one Jeff drew for me. On one side is incredible optimism, a kind of shocking, exciting, scary-fun optimism that makes you feel a little bit like anything is possible. Like the future is now. Like it's only going to get better. On the other side is insight; a shrewd, cutting, almost preternatural sense of where it’s all going, what consumers want, how businesses get built, and the knowledge to find or build a path to that destination. And there in the middle — where those two disparate sides meet — is Jeff Bezos, laughing.
Photography by Michael Shane