It’s Amazon’s World, You’re Just Living In it

An impromptu convo with Jeff Bezos helps clarify his vision

Jeff Bezos
Amazon CeO Jeff Bezos answers reporter's questions.

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

PRODUCT DISCLOSURE $

Standing inside Amazon’s giant terrarium, also known as the “Amazon Spheres” where plants and trees easily outnumber the humans, I was still struggling to comprehend all that Amazon unveiled on Wednesday afternoon and how the proliferation of Alexa into every corner of our lives might impact consumers.

Amazon Spheres
Amazon held its product event in the two giant spheres adjacent to its headquarters.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I had decided to focus, for the time being, on the three surprising wearables: a ring, ear buds and, yes, glasses. I stood at a cocktail table typing while much of the crowd waited on the upper level of Amazon’s stadium-sized terrarium for a special performance by singer Charlie Puth. Suddenly, the crowd behind me jostled against my back and I heard someone say loudly, after being asked to choose his favorite product announcement of the day, that basically he could not choose. The voice followed that with a barking laugh.

I twisted around and was almost nose-to-nose with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

A Billionaire and His Products

Bezos had unexpectedly dropped into his own party and now he was surrounded by journalists hungry for a quote from this normally press-phobic billionaire.

I realized I had to say something and started searching my brain about all the products Amazon had launched during a breakneck product unveiling only a few hours before. There were a lot:

  • An all-new Echo
  • Echo Buds in-ear headphones
  • Echo Flex, a wall-plug Echo Dot
  • Echo Studio, a high-end Alexa speaker
  • Echo Loop, a slighting nutty Alexa ring
  • The 8-inch Echo Show
  • An Echo Oven that puts Alexa at the heart of your kitchen
  • A New Echo Dot with a clock readout
  • The Echo Glow, basically a smart night light
  • Sidewalk, a new long-range, low-powered wireless technology
  • Fetch, the dog tag that works with Sidewalk
  • Echo frames, Alexa-enabled prescription glasses 

'I think there’s a role for good regulations on this area [and it] would be very welcomed by all the players,' said Bezos

I stared at Bezos, with whom I share more than one characteristic (age, hair, tech interest) and realized I could not remember if he’d ever worn glasses. I had to ask Bezos about his oddest new product.

“Do you wear glasses?” I asked Bezos.

He said he did, but always used his contacts, because his prescription would require ridiculously thick lenses. Then he added that, yes, he's been wearing Echo Frames, but with clear glass lenses. I observed that was like Superman, but the swole CEO had already turned away to field another question.

Where Are We Going With This?

Yet, I stood my ground. I had so many questions about Amazon’s breakneck product launch pace and its fearlessness.

Is there any consumer technology company asking everyone to try so many different products at once? The thread is, obviously, Alexa, Amazon's smart voice assistant.

Amazon and Bezos’ product and service strategy, launching (by Bezos’ count) 100 in the last month, assumes a voracious Alexa appetite.

That may be true: Echo Dot is the leading smart speaker on the market and there are now 85,000 Alexa-compatible products.

The Magic Numbers

The crowd had tightened around us; I couldn’t move away from Bezos if I wanted to. So, I asked about what I saw as the secret sauce, what I think many consumers are responding to, even if at a subconscious level: price.

How deeply, I asked, does Amazon think about price and how does it weigh that crucial factor against features. Was there some sort of balance to achieve or choice to be made?

“Why choose?” Bezos said quickly, adding that the $199 Echo Studio “is a perfect example of, ‘Why choose?’”

Amazon Echo Studio
Amazon Echo Studio.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Bezos has a point. The almost 1-foot tall Alexa speaker has 5 speakers, a downward-facing woofer, and 7 microphones. It can be used alone or as a stereo or surround system out of the box. From a spec perspective, it meets or beats Apple’s $349, somewhat lackluster-selling HomePod. I did listen to the Echo Studio in a closed room. It has impressive audio capabilities.

I mentioned how Amazon undercut Apple’s price and Bezos, who didn’t seem to know how much the HomePod cost, told me “If you look at the $500 price point... that part [meaning the Studio] outperforms many other $500 products.”

Dave Limp
Amazon Product Lead Dave Limp walks through a bunch of new Alexa products. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff 

Dave Limp, Amazon’s Product Lead and the guy who delivered the entire product rollout, stood next to Bezos and reminded me that Amazon works backwards from the press release to develop products. That release typically defines the one thing that will make consumers want a product. But the other factor is price.

Limp and Bezos were dancing around the topic. I was certain price played a more important role in product development. Amazon doesn’t just undercut competitors in one category, it does it in virtually all of them. 

“This team is very ingenious, very inventive,” said Bezos (after laughing and telling me, “You’re hired!”). “When you go look at the quality and the price points the team is able to achieve, it is impressive, but does not come easily.”

Four Echo Products to Watch

Limp reminded me that “there’s invention to get the feature done, but also invention to get to the price point. We’re striving to break even. We want to make money when you use the device.”

That last part was an allusion to all the Amazon Shopping and other subscription services (Prime, Music, Video) we can use through virtually all Alexa-enabled decides, including the Echo Studio.

Looking Out for You

The rapid expansion into the furthest corners of our homes, even managing the wireless foundation with products like Eero mesh wireless (yes, this got an update, too), intensifies privacy concerns. So, it was no surprise that Limp started the event talking about privacy.

Like most tech companies. Amazon has a somewhat spotty history with managing our privacy. Its facial recognition system has been sold to law enforcement agencies to the consternation of some customers and civil liberties groups.

Plus, like other tech companies, Amazon has in the past employed human contractors to transcribe anonymized Alexa conversations to improve the system. Amazon is now adding a collection of tools that shift the balance of voice control back to users. Echo owners can now tell Alexa to delete the conversation history or do it on a rolling basis. You can even interrogate Alexa, asking it what it heard and why it did something.

Amazon, Privacy, and Regulation

It was clearly a new voice system approach, a signal, I think, that Amazon is ready for whatever regulatory changes might be coming in the future.

Suddenly, I realized I had my next question. I shifted so I was almost facing Bezos, who shockingly still hadn’t been whisked away by handlers, and asked if Amazon was prepared for coming tech regulation.

Bezos didn’t demur.

“I think,” he said,” there’s a role for good regulations on this area [and it] would be very welcomed by all the players. I think it makes a lot of sense for there to be some standards in how all this works. That kind of stability would probably be healthy for the whole industry.”

A moment later, when someone asked him about facial recognition, Bezos said, “That’s a perfect example of where regulation is needed.” I would’ve fallen over if I weren’t held up by all the bodies pressing in on me.

So What

Bezos might have stood there all afternoon if someone hadn’t grabbed him to make a brief introduction for Charlie Puth.

As Puth sang a glorious, almost acapella set, I thought about Amazon’s ambitions.

There’s clearly no limit to the number and kind of products Amazon will sell us. They will be favorably priced, and all frictionless gateways to Amazon’s world of commerce.

As the tendrils of Amazon’s enterprise weave their way through our lives, much like the carpet of vines and leaves climbing the walls of Amazon’s controlled-ecosystem spheres, Amazon, Alexa, and its consumers will become one: a symbiotic, ecommerce-delivering-and-consuming organism that knows Amazon is at least willing to offer lip-service to good privacy, since no tech regulation stands even a tiny chance of holding back the oncoming Alexa wave.

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