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The Verge 2016 tech report card: Amazon

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For a company best known for selling cheap books and home goods, Amazon's year has looked surprisingly futuristic. Its 2016 has been filled with drones, tiny home assistants, automatic ordering, and a concept store packed with body-tracking cameras. It has been, on the surface, a spectacle to watch.

And some of it is even quite real. Amazon's Alexa assistant has been a runaway success in 2016, all thanks to regular updates providing new integrations. The debut of the Echo Dot has put Alexa's potential to even better use, making it far more affordable to have a digital assistant living throughout your house.

Drone delivery is starting to happen too, though only in a kind-of-sort-of way: in a trial with two rural customers in the UK. And while Amazon's cashier-free convenience store remains merely a single-location concept, Amazon has continued to expand into physical bookstores, suggesting that it has some real ambitions in real spaces.

Amazon Video has largely been a bright spot as well, with Transparent picking up more awards and Amazon's careful selection of film buys making it a must-have for movie buffs. Its reliance, however, on projects from men dogged by assault or harassment allegations — including Jeremy Clarkson, Woody Allen, and Casey Affleck — remains a troubling disappointment.

The Kindle line tread slowly forward with a simple refresh of its introductory model and a new top of the line model, the Oasis — with pricing too high to recommend buying. Amazon's Kindle Unlimited service remains a major disappointment, too, packed with self-published ebooks but nearly nothing from major publishers.

All the while, Amazon's real business has continued to shift into the cloud. Amazon Web Services has been growing at a rapid pace — enough so that it eclipsed all of Amazon's North American retail profits last quarter. That's not exciting for consumers, but it's great news if you're an Amazon investor (I'm not).

But underneath the shiny veil of delivery drones, discounted products, talking speakers, and growing revenue is a darker core: Amazon's working conditions, which continue to sound awful. This year, there have been reports of Amazon shaming workers for alleged theft and threatening to fire employees for being sick, as well as those of workers needing to sleep in tents near a warehouse to avoid travel costs and to "defecate in bags" to finish delivery runs.

These are not acceptable costs for two-day delivery and cheap gadgets. Amazon may be pushing technology forward and offering unparalleled levels of convenience for its customers, but it appears to still be doing so at the great expense of its workers. If Amazon wants to do better next year, that's where it should start.

Verge 2016 Report Card: Amazon

C

2016 Grade

Gold Stars:

  • Alexa improving week by week
  • Carved out a specific niche in original films
  • Exciting ideas about the future of shopping

Needs Improvement:

  • Employees' work conditions
  • Choice of TV and filmmaking partners
  • Everything about that Wi-Fi water pitcher it released