November 28, 2012
"There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."

Fine, I’m a writer, so obviously I’d be taken with Jeff Bezos’s management technique, described in the Fortune cover story, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: The Ultimate Disrupter. Still, there’s something terribly compelling about his habit of forcing the company’s leadership team to sit in silence and read six-page “narratives” before any discussion. As he points out in the quote above, there’s no room for sloppy thinking in a six-page memo. Not one that you want your boss and all your managers to read, at least. The whole of this story is worth a read and all.

[Story via Jessi Hempel.]

September 16, 2012

Hands up if you find this Amazon commercial patronizing and stupid in about equal measure. They kind of had me until the shot where the woman is brushing her teeth while reading her Kindle, but then they lost me entirely. I mean, you can’t brush your teeth while holding a printed book? I beg to differ. Regardless, it’s a stupid thing to do anyway.

But then the whole tone suddenly got all sorts of braggy, as Amazon begins to compare its gizmos to iconic moments in the world’s history (“connecting your mouse to the front door” is the equivalent of the moon landing on what world, exactly? “Creating the Kindle” was the company’s four-minute mile? Do go on. What was your “I have a dream” speech? Was that when you started to provide web services for other companies? Or when exactly did you stand in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square? Don’t tell me. That must have been when you bought Zappos. Oh please. And to be clear, I do think those introductions are amazing, but the comparisons strike me as tin-eared, irrelevant and make Amazon seem like a company that can’t look past its own navel.)

But then, it gets even better, when the soft-toned, arch but utterly reassuring narrator* reminds us that what once seemed wildly impractical is now completely normal (actually a good point) but then adds, “And normal just begs to be messed with.” Is that meant to reassure us that Amazon ain’t done innovating yet? Because while I’m sure that’s absolutely true, I find this promise entirely unnerving and borderline fascistic. 

* Note to tech companies: if you ALL use the same style of plinkety plonkety music and soothing style of voiceover in your advertisements, you all begin to blend into one. It worked for Apple eons ago. Change. Things. Up.

</rant>

July 24, 2012
"Amazon will pay up to 95% of the tuition, textbook and associated fees up to a maximum of $2,000 per year for four years."

"At Amazon, we like to pioneer, we like to invent, and we’re not willing to do things the normal way if we can figure out a better way," writes Jeff Bezos in a letter to customers that currently inhabits the home page of the online retailer. The Amazon Career Choice Program encourages employees who’ve been with the company for three years to invest in vocational training, regardless of whether these skills are related to Amazon’s own business or not. “It can be difficult in this economy to have the flexibility and financial resources to teach yourself new skills,” Bezos continues, describing the program as focusing entirely on areas that are “well-paying and in high demand.”

I thought it was bold of Bezos to call out innovation within the company’s fulfillment centers at the top of his letter. That is an area that’s been the subject of criticism in the past, notably in a devastating piece published in The Morning Call. The message here is that top brass aren’t worried about that, and continuing to do things its own way. We all know that education in the United States is in a terrible state, and doing something constructive is the only way to emerge from the economic crisis with any hope at all. So while in-house tuition programs are hardly new, this is certainly an interesting model, and one to monitor. 

[Story via Alex Kinnebrew]

July 11, 2012
"I have an experienced customer service rep sitting next to me helping me because otherwise I would probably give really bad service… It’s not that easy."

— Wonderful quote from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who’s noted as a fierce believer in the theory that a) customer service is king with the firm caveat that b) customer service should be so invisible that said customers don’t actually notice they’re being served. As such, when he takes his yearly stint on the call lines to field the gripes of grumpy customers, it’s a given that the calls are going to be tricky to solve. The Bezos Doctrine of Ruthless Pragmatism contains this gem and several other stories of how the Seattle giant is using technology to innovate backwards and forwards up the supply chain.

May 2, 2012
Thoughtful piece by Timothy Egan about e-books and the threat of Amazon on the livelihood of publishers and independent book store owners, pointing out that despite the howls of &#8220;o me miserum&#8221; and fraught hand-wringing, "we have more books, more readers, a bigger audience for words, on pixels or paper.&#8221;
I&#8217;ve wondered before about those consumers who are less focused on bargain basement prices and who might want to know that a percentage of their money is going towards those actually producing the content (so I&#8217;m a writer, color me biased.) But the fear of innovation and transformation from those who wish things could just stay as they used to be is potent, dangerous and, ultimately, irrelevant. It&#8217;s useful to remind ourselves that markets shift, worlds change, whether we like it or not. Or, as Egan puts it:

Publishers need to reinvent their own future. They could offer packages. They could partner more with communities of interest, from environmentalists to religious conservatives. And, most important, they could start believing in tomorrow, instead of being afraid of it.

[Encyclopedia image via Stewart; Story via Maria Popova]

Thoughtful piece by Timothy Egan about e-books and the threat of Amazon on the livelihood of publishers and independent book store owners, pointing out that despite the howls of “o me miserum” and fraught hand-wringing, "we have more books, more readers, a bigger audience for words, on pixels or paper.”

I’ve wondered before about those consumers who are less focused on bargain basement prices and who might want to know that a percentage of their money is going towards those actually producing the content (so I’m a writer, color me biased.) But the fear of innovation and transformation from those who wish things could just stay as they used to be is potent, dangerous and, ultimately, irrelevant. It’s useful to remind ourselves that markets shift, worlds change, whether we like it or not. Or, as Egan puts it:

Publishers need to reinvent their own future. They could offer packages. They could partner more with communities of interest, from environmentalists to religious conservatives. And, most important, they could start believing in tomorrow, instead of being afraid of it.

[Encyclopedia image via Stewart; Story via Maria Popova]

February 25, 2012
In The Future Of The Book Is The Stream, Megan Garber outlines about a new initiative from audiobooks.com to sell a monthly subscription service rather than sell books by the title. She writes:
"The service has the potential to reframe book-buying as a transactional thing, making it less about purchasing an object, and more about purchasing an experience."
It&#8217;s an interesting proposition, and if taken to its logical conclusion, as Garber tracks here, could potentially revolutionize the book-selling business. But one thing she doesn&#8217;t get into: what this means for the content providers themselves. What does a monthly subscription service mean for the authors and writers trying to make a living through their craft? If we move to a world where we no longer pay for things because we actually want to read/watch/hear them and more because we have the ability to read/watch/hear them, what does this mean for the content that will become available to us? 
In a world of shared value and collaborative consumption, it&#8217;s likely that our attitudes towards &#8220;owning&#8221; books will evolve rapidly. Yet while I now read digital books almost exclusively, there&#8217;s still something to be said for having permanent access to those digital files, lost if a subscription lapses. And, while the shift that subscription brings to content ownership might encourage people to read more widely and freely, I also wonder about the other implications on our resulting relationships with that content. Interesting to ponder.
[&#8220;Books About Books&#8221; image by jm3 on Flickr.]

In The Future Of The Book Is The Stream, Megan Garber outlines about a new initiative from audiobooks.com to sell a monthly subscription service rather than sell books by the title. She writes:

"The service has the potential to reframe book-buying as a transactional thing, making it less about purchasing an object, and more about purchasing an experience."

It’s an interesting proposition, and if taken to its logical conclusion, as Garber tracks here, could potentially revolutionize the book-selling business. But one thing she doesn’t get into: what this means for the content providers themselves. What does a monthly subscription service mean for the authors and writers trying to make a living through their craft? If we move to a world where we no longer pay for things because we actually want to read/watch/hear them and more because we have the ability to read/watch/hear them, what does this mean for the content that will become available to us?

In a world of shared value and collaborative consumption, it’s likely that our attitudes towards “owning” books will evolve rapidly. Yet while I now read digital books almost exclusively, there’s still something to be said for having permanent access to those digital files, lost if a subscription lapses. And, while the shift that subscription brings to content ownership might encourage people to read more widely and freely, I also wonder about the other implications on our resulting relationships with that content. Interesting to ponder.

[“Books About Books” image by jm3 on Flickr.]

January 5, 2012
"This is hardly customer service. It’s actually getting in the way of a customer who’s trying to self-service because there’s no one around who can answer a basic question about the store’s confusing layout. It’s anti-service."

Whoa. Why Best Buy Is Going Out Of Business… Gradually is a *scathing* piece about Best Buy in Forbes, written by Larry Downes. Love the fact that Downes simply doesn’t brook the usual hand-wringing from big box store executives that online retailers such as Amazon have an unfair advantage. Instead, he points out that physical retailers have systematically squandered their advantages and totally failed to think about who they’re actually meant to be in business to serve. In this case, he argues, by aiming for quarterly results rather than customer satisfaction (and repeat business), Best Buy execs are consigning their once mighty business to a fast and inevitable demise. As he concludes:

Best Buy is living in the corporate equivalent of what psychologists call a state of denial. In business, that’s usually the first step in a failure that ends with a spectacular collapse.”

[Story via Jarrod Cady.]

December 13, 2011
"Is it just me, or does it feel as if the Amazon brass decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean and left in charge of the company a computer that’s fallen head over heels in love with its own algorithms?"

Amazon’s Jungle Logic is a look at the web giant’s latest strategy to attract customers: encourage them to go into bricks-and-mortar stores to see what they might want to buy, and then buy it for cheaper online. It’s something that people have done for years, so you might think the overt acknowledgement is unremarkable. But as the tone of the above quote implies, it might well backfire. This article is just one in which the prevailing opinion seems to be that customers (who do, after all, have brains) are beginning to realize the impacts of their own behavior—and considering doing things differently. In this case, booksellers are beginning to fight back—appropriately enough, through words and thinking rather than through promotions or cost-slashing (a game they’re not likely to win, let’s face it.) As the Nashville bookstore-owner puts it in this piece: If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.”

See also another experiment, in which comedian Louis CK put a copy of a live performance up for sale on his website. He added a note for would-be pirates: 

“I’d just like you to consider this: I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without ‘corporate’ restrictions.”

“Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation. I’m just some guy … I can’t stop you from torrenting; all I can do is politely ask you to pay your five little dollars, enjoy the video and let other people find it in the same way.”

Too soon to say these small experiments signal anything particularly significant in regard to how the economy runs, but I’m always heartened to be reminded of the humanity at the basis of everything. And it seems noteworthy and somehow appropriate that real live people are putting a spanner in the works of algorithms that haven’t been programmed to cope with the caprice and irrationality or plain common sense of human beings.

December 5, 2011
Jakob Nielsen Does Not Love The Kindle Fire

Usability guru, Jakob Nielsen of Nielsen Norman Group, weighs in on the interaction design of Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet. It’s distinctly not a rave review. Screen updates are slow, the device is heavy, the programming is sloppy, the magazine reading experience is miserable. It’s worth reading the whole post for both the design dissection and the business case analysis of 7” tablets. Here’s one snapshot comment:

 You haven’t seen the fat-finger problem in its full glory until you’ve watched users struggle to touch things on the Fire. One poor guy spent several minutes trying to log in to Facebook, but was repeatedly foiled by accidentally touching the wrong field or button — this on a page with only 2 text fields and 1 button.

[Story via Jimmy Guterman.]

October 31, 2011
My Doblin colleagues, Brian Quinn (left) and Ryan Pikkel also presented at Design at Scale, showing an updated version of the Ten Types of Innovation to an appreciative audience. I have been working on this project since I joined Doblin a year ago, and it was interesting and affirming to see how well the new framework resonated. Quinn and Pikkel were also thoughtful about the continued disconnect between management philosophies of design and, well, management, a topic that I&#8217;ve been interested in since my days at BusinessWeek. 
Perhaps the most powerful takeaway for me was their reminder that good design is important but on its own is not enough to guarantee success. They compared the fortunes of the Flip camera, an object that went from much lauded innovation darling to &#8220;former product&#8221; in the space of four years, with Amazon&#8217;s Kindle, a product whose design was widely derided when it first came out which nonetheless forms an integral part of the company&#8217;s platform.
A useful reminder that the most powerful combination of all is the union of good design and good business. Those two legs need to be equally sturdy, or you might just find yourself with a nasty limp.
[Photo c/o DMI.]

My Doblin colleagues, Brian Quinn (left) and Ryan Pikkel also presented at Design at Scale, showing an updated version of the Ten Types of Innovation to an appreciative audience. I have been working on this project since I joined Doblin a year ago, and it was interesting and affirming to see how well the new framework resonated. Quinn and Pikkel were also thoughtful about the continued disconnect between management philosophies of design and, well, management, a topic that I’ve been interested in since my days at BusinessWeek

Perhaps the most powerful takeaway for me was their reminder that good design is important but on its own is not enough to guarantee success. They compared the fortunes of the Flip camera, an object that went from much lauded innovation darling to “former product” in the space of four years, with Amazon’s Kindle, a product whose design was widely derided when it first came out which nonetheless forms an integral part of the company’s platform.

A useful reminder that the most powerful combination of all is the union of good design and good business. Those two legs need to be equally sturdy, or you might just find yourself with a nasty limp.

[Photo c/o DMI.]

October 17, 2011
"

That one last thing that Google doesn’t do well is Platforms. We don’t understand platforms. We don’t “get” platforms… This has become painfully clear to me over the past six years. I was kind of hoping that competitive pressure from Microsoft and Amazon and more recently Facebook would make us wake up collectively and start doing universal services. Not in some sort of ad-hoc, half-assed way, but in more or less the same way Amazon did it: all at once, for real, no cheating, and treating it as our top priority from now on.

But no. No, it’s like our tenth or eleventh priority. Or fifteenth, I don’t know. It’s pretty low. There are a few teams who treat the idea very seriously, but most teams either don’t think about it all, ever, or only a small percentage of them think about it in a very small way.

"

Doblin talks a lot about the importance of platform-led innovation, and this incredible rant by Google engineer Steve Yegge shows how lots of other smart people think similarly. Bemoaning the search giant’s flawed approach to the social space while outlining the prescient, if brutal, approach of Amazon (Yegge’s previous employer) this is probably the most important piece about innovation you’ll read this year.

September 29, 2011
"Tech is just a loop. First we organize, then we disrupt, then it gets organized again, then that gets disrupted."

After yesterday’s post about the implications of Amazon’s Kindle Fire introduction, tech veteran Dave Winer pipes up with his vision of What Comes After The Cloud. Worth a read, as is this amazing piece by Douglas Rushkoff: In The Next Net, the author outlines the reality of the Internet as he sees it, and provides a stark reminder for those yearning to live in merry oblivion and see it as somehow magically neutral. He concludes:

I propose we abandon the Internet, or at least accept the fact that it has been surrendered to corporate control like pretty much everything else in Western society. It was bound to happen, and its flawed, centralized architecture made it ripe for conquest.

[Rushkoff story via Bert Aldridge.]

September 28, 2011
Lots of breathless excitement and hoopla around Amazon&#8217;s introduction of a new series of Kindles. Here&#8217;s an interesting take that gets past the fact that there&#8217;s a new competitor to the iPad in town. Longtime Apple employee, Chris Espinosa, writes:

In essence the Fire user base is Amazon&#8217;s Mechanical Turk, scraping the Web for free and providing Amazon with the most valuable cache of user behavior in existence.

Eat your hearts out, Facebook and Google.
Espinosa also has warnings for the giant search engine, on whom he says Amazon is performing &#8220;astonishing jujitsu&#8221;:

Fire isn&#8217;t a noun, it&#8217;s a verb, and it&#8217;s what Amazon has done in the targeted direction of Google. This is the first shot in the new war for replacing the Internet with a privatized merchant data-aggregation network.

Is that a phrase to bring a tear to the eye of Tim Berners-Lee, or what?
[Story via Nilofer Merchant. Image c/o Amazon.]

Lots of breathless excitement and hoopla around Amazon’s introduction of a new series of Kindles. Here’s an interesting take that gets past the fact that there’s a new competitor to the iPad in town. Longtime Apple employee, Chris Espinosa, writes:

In essence the Fire user base is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, scraping the Web for free and providing Amazon with the most valuable cache of user behavior in existence.

Eat your hearts out, Facebook and Google.

Espinosa also has warnings for the giant search engine, on whom he says Amazon is performing “astonishing jujitsu”:

Fire isn’t a noun, it’s a verb, and it’s what Amazon has done in the targeted direction of Google. This is the first shot in the new war for replacing the Internet with a privatized merchant data-aggregation network.

Is that a phrase to bring a tear to the eye of Tim Berners-Lee, or what?

[Story via Nilofer Merchant. Image c/o Amazon.]

June 15, 2011
"One of the things that attracted me in the first place about Amazon is that I could easily describe how we were going to make money, to anybody. We are going to sell books. People will send us money, and we will put it in the bank. And then we will ship them a book. And we will do that a lot…"

— Shel Kaphan, the first employee of Amazon.com, in this great Q&A with GeekWire.

April 27, 2011
"Invention is in our DNA and technology is the fundamental tool we wield to evolve and improve every aspect of the experience we provide our customers. We still have a lot to learn, and I expect and hope we’ll continue to have so much fun learning it. I take great pride in being part of this team. As always, I attach a copy of our original 1997 letter. Our approach remains the same, and it’s still Day 1."

Jeff Bezos’ letter to shareholders is a paean to the value of R&D, as well as the Amazon chief’s oblique reassurance not to worry about this quarter’s less than stellar results. The original letter of intent he refers to is also well worth a read, as is his explanation of the research structure within Amazon’s by-now-vast organization. “Technology infuses all of our teams, all of our processes, our decision-making, and our approach to innovation in each of our businesses,” he writes. “It is deeply integrated into everything we do.” Not for Bezos the silos often found in innovation. Also note his still-hungry sign-off. “It’s still Day 1.” An amazing attitude all would do well to foster.