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Amazon is flooding the hardware gaps between Apple, Microsoft, and Google

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Tech keynotes reveal more than just products

Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Today is Microsoft’s big day, as you no doubt have surmised from everything I’ve been writing about. Charlie Warzel at The New York Times wrote last month that he hoped these sorts of keynotes would become a thing of the past. I’m absolutely not going to defend all of the pomp and hype, but I do think these things are worth paying attention to.

I want to talk through a specific example of a tech keynote being instructive: Amazon’s big 80-product extravaganza last week. Amazon was communicating something important about itself by cramming so much into such a small space.

Every company only gets a certain number of opportunities to say, “Pay attention to us right now. We have something to say and it’s going to take an hour.” What Apple or Microsoft or Google or whomever decide to do with that very valuable attention is notable.

Let’s take today’s keynote. Microsoft very much needs to tell a story about itself and its hardware because it is seemingly doing at least two big, new things — and maybe more. New rumors have solidified not only the ARM Surface, but also the likelihood of a dual-screened device and a new flavor of Windows, called Windows 10X.

How will Microsoft explain the thinking behind these products? I’m not suggesting we should naively take what’s said on stage at face value, but paying attention can be instructive. We’re going to learn a little more about what Microsoft thinks computers should look like, and the company is going to make an argument. Shouldn’t we want to know what that argument is, even if we disagree with it?

Even though it doesn’t seem like it to an American audience that mostly just buys iPhones, no technology is inevitable. It has to get invented and then that thing could be good or bad. And the quality of those products and how they affect people’s behavior will have real-world effects.

It feels weird to have to say all this in the first place. But the techlash (a term I hate just based on the awkwardness of the portmanteau) has us all second guessing everything. Good; it should. And if all the big companies want to get together and agree to stop producing these announcement events, that’s fine. But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

So if they’re going to happen, we should be getting more out of them than just specs. Being troubled by the effects technology has on us means we should be paying more attention to the devices and software that causes all those effects — and on why the companies that make those products think they ought to exist in the first place.

Okay, now let’s talk about Amazon. It held an event just last week where 80 — that’s eight zero — products were announced, 15 of which were new hardware products from Amazon or one of its subsidiaries. It also wasn’t live streamed online. What is Amazon saying here?

Well, first of all it seems like Amazon is trying to do something different from everybody else. The company would call it humility, but I can’t help but see it as a recognition that Amazon doesn’t make any singular products that can hold the stage for a long time on their own —instead, it makes dozens of near-commodity pieces of hardware. You don’t need a keynote for an Echo Show that fills in a missing screen size between the other screen sizes.

Amazon isn’t saying, “Look at this thing we made,” but instead, “We made all the things, look!”

With Apple, you think of the iPhone as the central product and everything else exists in relation to it. Before it was the iPhone, it was the Mac (or perhaps the iPod). After the iPhone it will be something else — or at least Apple’s investors certainly hope it will be something else.

With Amazon, I think the intended effect of that wave of products is that you think of Amazon itself as the central thing instead of a specific product like the Echo speaker. Amazon wants you to like Amazon, not the specific products it makes.

(Incidentally, I think that’s why Amazon aggressively promotes Alexa as a “she” instead of an “it.” It’s not so much about gender as it is about anthropomorphization as a corporate strategy. I think brushing aside the gender issues related to digital assistants is at least as problematic as trying to humanize an algorithm to customers —many of whom are children. That’s why I continue to refer to Alexa and other assistants with “it.”)

The Echo Flex, a cheap Alexa device you can plug in to any outlet

It also reveals a retailer’s mindset. Amazon’s event was more about a holiday product lineup than anything else. That’s really not that far from what every other tech company is doing with its fall hardware events, but you can’t help but feel like Amazon is more excited about having fully stocked virtual shelves than about the specific things on those shelves.

Yes, Amazon wants to make an Echo device the centerpiece of your kitchen, but it’s also perfectly happy to have it be an impulse buy.

Amazon’s hardware event was worth paying attention to because it confirmed that Amazon isn’t trying to shoehorn its way into your digital life with one huge, hit product but instead dozens cheaper ones. Why take on Android or the iPhone or Windows directly when you can flood the space between them?

The Fire phone flopped (sorry to bring it up again), so Amazon doesn’t have phones. And it doesn’t make laptops, either. But TV sticks? Got ‘em, at every price point. TVs? Amazon’s partners got ‘em. Speakers: got ‘em in four different sizes, with or without screens. Headphones, microwaves, smart plugs, cameras, Wi-Fi routers — Amazon’s got ‘em all.

There’s one key announcement inside all of those other announcements that I think deserves more attention, and that relates directly to the idea that the real message of Amazon’s keynote was the centrality of Amazon itself, not the specs on a fancy Echo Studio speaker. That’ll have to wait for another newsletter, though (here’s where to subscribe to get it in your inbox).

For today, watch what Microsoft announces, but also watch for how it announces those things. What the company tells you about its laptops will be about more than making fun of MacBook keyboards. How Microsoft talks about its more forward-looking devices will tell you what’s next for Windows — the second-most-used operating system on the planet.

More on Microsoft’s hardware event

+ Leak reveals Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7, 15-inch Surface Laptop, and ARM-powered Surface

After opining so much on what I think Microsoft should do, it was gratifying to see that these leaks look so good. Will they perform? Hard to say, but getting traditional win32 apps to work well on ARM has been a challenge. Just ask Steven Sinofsky — he knows of what he speaks on this topic.

+ Leak reveals Windows 10X, Microsoft’s new OS for dual-screen devices

What is Microsoft trying to do here, compete with Google for having its devices leaked?

+ Why Microsoft has to bet big on an ARM-based Surface

Here’s an important update I put up regarding yesterday’s newsletter:

Then there was the very first Surface (aka the Surface RT), which also ran ARM. The original version of this article didn’t mention it, which was a stupid oversight especially since I was literally at that launch event personally. That Surface was a classic example of launching before everything was ready: it was too slow running apps and didn’t have enough native apps to work well. (I regret the error in the previous paragraph from the original piece and thanks to Eric for the email about it.)

More from The Verge

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+ GoPro’s new Hero 8 Black does more of the work for you

The way Sean O’Kane describes the video stabilization here makes me sort of think I made a mistake getting that Osmo Pocket. They’re different types of cameras, but this GoPro looks really good. I’m not an action cam kind of person, but I do love having a camera separate from my phone for shooting. Can’t wait to see how this thing performs in our review. Just kidding, we don’t have to wait, there’s a review for you right here.

+ Skydio 2: the self-flying future of drones starts at $999

Sean Hollister is really impressed with this thing. After watching the video of it in action (which you should also watch), I am too.

+ The FCC can repeal net neutrality, but it can’t block state laws, says court

I assume this will be appealed. I also am not super hopeful that will matter. Which means that the fight will move to the states and also to the next election.

+ The iPhone 11’s Deep Fusion camera is now in the iOS 13 developer beta

Nilay Patel has a good explanation for how this works. One interesting note from John Gruber, too: since the ultrawide doesn’t support it, if you turn on “capture outside the frame,” you won’t get Deep Fusion.

One thing this fancy technology won’t fix: having to head over to the settings app to change your video resolution.