Company / division: Amazon
In the wake of the many allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, allegations of sexual harassment by Amazon Studios boss Roy Price have resurfaced, and have led to his suspension by the company. As with the Weinstein allegations, it appears those against Price have circulated for some time but never been talked about publicly much, though The Information did have a story a little while ago about the specific accusation that’s been reported again this week. Price has already been somewhat embattled recently as Jeff Bezos has begun overruling some of his decisions as head of Amazon’s original content efforts, so it’s possible that he will be forced out over these allegations whether or not others emerge as a way to clean the slate and complete the shift towards the new programming strategy. Needless to say, as with Weinstein, if the allegations are proven to have merit, Price ought to go for those reasons alone.
Update: BuzzFeed has a copy of the internal memo sent to Amazon staff about the suspension and related issues. Something I should have mentioned earlier but neglected to: Amazon was made aware of the allegations some time ago and instigated an independent investigation, which ended without any apparent action against Roy Price. That he’s been suspended now appears to be entirely the result of the public attention this is now receiving rather than any new information that’s come to light. That feels like hypocrisy, a sense exacerbated by the references to Amazon’s policy on abuse in the internal memo.
Amazon has added basic voice recognition and personalization features to its Echo devices, as a partial response to the Google Home’s similar feature. As in other areas, Amazon has a weakness here compared with Google in that it has no real background profile information on the individual users in a household, something it’s starting to change with recent family features (and the teen account feature announced earlier today). As such, its voice recognition feature will only enable limited personalization, focused on Amazon’s own services and not third party features like calendars, which is where Google Home’s equivalent feature (and Google services in general) excels. This makes Amazon’s new feature a good start, but far from a fully-fledged response to Google in this department, while it continues to be ahead in other key areas following its recent hardware and software upgrades.
via The Verge
Amazon has just announced a way for teenagers to buy items from its site through parent accounts, with either an item-by-item approval process or pre-set spending limits. Parents will receive summary text notifications when their teens have placed an order and have the option to reply with a simple “Y” via SMS to approve the order, or to see full details on Amazon’s site. This feels like yet another example of both Amazon’s maturity in the e-commerce space and the way it continues to evolve its offerings even as other retailers continue to play catchup on its core services, and of its need to continually expand its addressable market for its e-commerce services to new potential customers. We’ve already seen this with its attempts to serve cash-centric customers, and we’re now seeing it with this move into serving teenagers more directly rather than through their parents. This will, of course, also train those teens to buy from Amazon from an early age, bypassing other potential sites, while leveraging the benefits of Prime. Feels pretty smart all around.
CNBC reports that Amazon is working on two new forms of delivery which would leverage technology to enable packages to be left for recipients in cars and homes. The main focus of the piece is a potential partnership with Phrame, which acts as a smart locker for cars and is backed by Bosch, but it also talks about Amazon working on what it calls a smart doorbell but would in reality have to incorporate a smart lock to work properly. Walmart recently announced a trial of in-home delivery with August in Silicon Valley, but Amazon has more incentive than anyone else to solve the problem of deliveries to customers who aren’t present given that its retail business is today almost entirely dependent on such deliveries. The big question I have around all this is the business model – both Phrame and existing smart lock products from companies like August are priced from $150 to $300, which is a large amount for Amazon to subsidize entirely, so I’d guess that it might offer some kind of partial subsidy of these products for heavy Amazon users.
Costco has launched a new online grocery shopping service, which will offer two-day delivery nationwide. There’s only a small delivery fee, but that’s a little misleading because the list prices for the items ordered in this way will be 15-17% higher than prices customers would encounter in stores. The irony here is that Costco’s stores are in some ways very much like warehouses, and therefore offer many of the same cost benefits as actual warehouses, meaning that e-commerce doesn’t provide many savings in that department, while shipping for the bulk items Costco typically sells would be disproportionately expensive. It would certainly be more transparent for Costco to be explicit about shipping while keeping the prices the same, but it’s likely banking on consumers making the same assumptions they make in its stores, namely that buying in bulk is always cheaper, without actually checking prices. That’s a tougher sell online, though, where comparison shopping is only a browser tab away. In other words, all this feels like a box-checking exercise against Amazon rather than a serious attempt to actually sell many groceries this way, which makes you wonder whether it’s worthwhile at all. Meanwhile, Amazon’s massive logistics advantage just continues to grow.
Janko Roettgers at Variety has done a great bit of analysis on the impact of the removal of YouTube from the Echo Show on sales and reviews of the devices. What he found is that the sales ranking in Amazon’s bestseller list seems to have fallen significantly over the past week or two. That’s not surprising given that as I said when the news was first announced, YouTube was a somewhat integral part of the value of the device’s screen, and Amazon had far more to lose from the end of the partnership than Google. It’s still not clear what exactly prompted the end of that relationship – right at the end of the Variety piece, there’s a quote from the Google executive who manages its competing Home portfolio there, in which he says the company is still evaluating the speaker-with-screen segment. So that competition may or may not have prompted it, and I’m still inclined to believe that it may have been a tit-for-tat against Amazon for scheduling a big hardware unveiling the week before Google’s own.
Bloomberg reports that Amazon is making yet another shift deeper into the logistics value chain, specifically with regard to third party sellers. It will now look to take control of the delivery process for items stored at sellers’ facilities as well as its own warehouses in a program it calls Seller Flex. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll make those deliveries itself – it may well still use UPS and FedEx – but sellers will no longer be responsible for making those decisions; Amazon will. Amazon has slowly been taking over more control of seller shipping in recent months, including changes that sellers haven’t liked, though this one seems likely to be somewhat more neutral in its impact. UPS and FedEx share prices have both taken a knock, since they might end up being squeezed out of some functions here, but the immediate impact seems likely to be fairly subtle, given that Amazon simply doesn’t have its own matching infrastructure yet for may of the deliveries those companies make.
EU Takes Action Against Amazon and Ireland Over Taxes (Oct 4, 2017)
It was reported earlier in the week that the EU would soon take action against both Amazon and Ireland (with regard to Apple) over the underpayment of taxes in the trading block, and both actions are now official. In the Amazon case, the company is being asked to pay 250 million euros to get the company up to the level of taxes the EU says it should have paid in Luxembourg over the last few years, while in the case of Ireland, the country is being taken to EU court by the European Commission over the fact that it has not yet collected and placed in escrow the 13 billion euros Apple owes it. I’ve covered both cases in the past, so I won’t add much here, but of course this is all part of the ongoing tension between the EU and the US tech industry on a variety of fronts, something that prompted me to create the first new narrative here on the site in a while and retroactively tag a number of past posts against it – you can see it here.
Amazon Launches Echo Devices and Alexa in India (Oct 4, 2017)
On the same day as Google added to its Google Home hardware lineup and added new software features, Amazon announced a new market for its own devices and software: India. Throughout Google’s event today, it talked about the “seven Google Home markets”, whereas Amazon now has four: the US, the UK, Germany, and now India. India’s an interesting choice because Echo and Alexa aren’t even available in Canada or Australia yet even though those are likely far bigger markets and much easier to adapt to than India from an English language perspective. This is therefore just the latest sign that Amazon is taking a dramatically more aggressive approach to India over recent weeks and months and prioritizing it above other more obvious markets for some of its products. The addressable market in India is likely relatively small, limited to relatively wealthy English speakers (the Echo devices are going to cost quite a bit more than in the US, as do other western gadgets), but it will obviously help tie customers there into the Prime ecosystem, something Amazon is very keen on in general and recently in India in particular.
Amazon has acquired Body Labs, a startup which makes software for creating detailed and realistic 3D maps of people’s bodies, for somewhere between $50 and $100 million. The technology has an obvious connection to Amazon’s Echo Look, one of its more marginal Echo devices, but one which has potential to drive strong ties with the burgeoning clothing side of Amazon’s e-commerce business. Beefing up the capabilities of that device and the associated app-based capabilities for evaluating fashion looks and the like could therefore pay off in a big way for Amazon as it looks to differentiate itself from other clothing retailers.
In a case with significant parallels to the European Commission’s tax case against Apple, it appears that it’s preparing to take similar action against Amazon over its past payment of taxes in Luxembourg, where its European operations are headquartered. As with the Apple case and Ireland, the country had offered Amazon reassurances that it was in compliance with local tax laws and the company has therefore been paying taxes in good faith, but the Commission feels that the deal involved special considerations which go against the normal tax rules for businesses in the country and therefore violate EU rules. The decision might be announced on Wednesday, and is likely to leave Amazon with a tax bill to Luxembourg for several hundred million euros, much smaller than Apple’s tax bill of 13 billion euros, but still significant given the level of Amazon’s overall profits in Europe, which have always been fairly low.
via Financial Times
Amazon Saw Under 400k Viewers for First NFL Game (Oct 2, 2017)
This is the second piece I’ve done on Amazon’s Thursday Night Football debut last week – see here for the first. After I wrote that piece, the NFL released audience numbers for the broadcast, and they show that just under 400k people watched the Amazon version, while 14.6 million people watched the live broadcast on CBS and the NFL Network, and 243k watched Twitter’s debut broadcast last year. On the face of it, it’s impressive that Amazon, with its much smaller number of members relative to Twitter, and with a sign-in requirement, was able to achieve broader viewership, but it also arguably promoted it much more heavily than Twitter did last year before its first game. It was certainly promoted heavily within the Amazon Video apps on various platforms the day of the game, making it hard to miss if you logged on planning to watch something else. And it’s also possible that interest in all NFL games is heightened at the moment because of the recent controversy over kneeling during the national anthem by players. The real question, of course, is what Amazon’s goal is here, and whether it’s achieving it. My guess is that it sees NFL games partly as a value-add for existing customers, and partly as a ploy to gain new subs for Prime. I’ve no doubt it will achieve the former, but the latter is a tougher sell – signing up for a Prime subscription is a lot to ask when the game is broadcast on TV.
Amazon streamed the first of its Thursday Night Football games last night, and this Mashable piece does a good job summarizing the experience for fans (I had other commitments and only tuned in very briefly). It appears the stream mostly held up bar some audio hitches, which hasn’t always been the case for new streaming video services in their debuts but should be par for the course with a provider like Amazon that already has massive streaming scale. The most noteworthy thing about the broadcast is how little innovation Amazon built around it, with the only meaningful departure from a normal broadcast being an alternative audio feed with British commentators providing color for those more familiar with a version of football where people actually use their feet. Twitter, of course, had the rights last year, and at least tried to pair the video feed with relevant tweets, an integration that offered little value at the time, but one on which Twitter has iterated since with more recent live events. By contrast, there was seemingly nothing about last night’s broadcast which felt uniquely Amazon-like, while the ads suffered from the same problem as most streaming video: too much repetition. I’m hoping Amazon was playing things reasonably safe with its first broadcast and will do more interesting things later in the season, because at this rate the NFL might as well just license the streaming rights to traditional broadcasters too.
Alongside this week’s big Amazon hardware announcements, it’s apparently made a quieter announcement too: the launch of Fire OS 6, the latest version of the company’s fork of the Android operating system, which is used on Fire TV and Fire tablets. This new version is based on Android 7.1.2, which was the last version of Android 7 to be released before this year’s launch of Android 8 / Oreo a few weeks back. So although it definitely brings Fire OS more up to date than the previous Lollipop/Marshmallow-based version, it’s still about a year behind in terms of core Android features. It’s not yet clear when Fire OS 6 might come to Amazon’s tablet lineup, or which Android features it might bring with it, but it’s a good reminder that Amazon still bases some of its most important products on a proprietary flavor of Android, yet another front in the coopetition between Google and Amazon.
via Android Police
Amazon today held what many publications described as a “surprise” event (in that Amazon embargoed the very existence of the event) to announce broad updates to its Echo line of devices, as well as a new version of its Fire TV box. The announcements represent a maturing of the Echo product line, which went from three main entries to five, now with a good, better, best approach to pure speakers and small and large options for speakers with screens. I’ve just created this image for the column I’m writing for Techpinions for tomorrow, and it’s a good overview of the Echo lineup before and after today’s announcements. Amazon also announced two new accessories: the Echo Connect, which acts as a bridge between an existing landline phone and Alexa calling, and Echo Buttons, the first of a new category of accessories called Alexa Gadgets, which will serve as companions to Echo and other Alexa-enabled devices, offering additional functionality (the Buttons are envisaged as interfaces for family members playing voice games, for example).
What we’re seeing from Amazon here is a consolidation of its early leadership in the voice speaker category, re-emphasizing its desire to dominate that market, if necessary through pricing hardware at or below cost. It engaged in some clever positioning around the pure speaker space by moving its core Echo product down in price by $50 while significantly improving its industrial design and audio performance, and introducing a new tier at $150 under the Echo Plus name. The Echo Plus also serves as a smart home hub in its own right rather than merely using cloud services and APIs to control devices through existing hubs, which is an interesting step forward but will require smart home gear to integrate with it in new ways. Amazon also announced Alexa integration in BMW cars from the 2018 model year onwards and Minis from mid-2018 onwards, which is another step in taking Alexa out of the home, albeit one which will take many years to reach a meaningful proportion of cars on the roads. Lastly, Amazon updated its Fire TV box, now in a quasi-dongle form factor, with 4K and HDR support and an Alexa remote (but not the always-on feature in the box itself which had been rumored), and at a slightly lower $70 price.
Both the timing and content of Amazon’s announcements today are a big thumb of the nose towards Google, which of course is holding its fall hardware announcement next week, and in the context of the secrecy around today’s event, I wonder if Google got wind of it yesterday and decided to rain on Amazon’s parade ever so slightly with its yanking of YouTube from the Echo Show. The only big move in the voice speaker space we’re expecting next week from Google is a smaller device to compete with the Echo Dot, so Amazon just wiped the floor with those announcements, making its own hardware more price competitive even at list price and adding new options for discerning customers. All of this also makes life a little tougher for both Sonos and HomePod, with Sonos announcing its first voice-enabled hardware on the same day as Google’s event next week. Audio performance on basic voice speakers is now getting good enough that both Apple and Sonos need to demonstrate significantly superior performance and better experiences with multi-room audio to compete.
Google Pulls YouTube from Amazon’s Echo Show Device (Sep 27, 2017)
Amazon announced last night that Google had pulled its YouTube app from the former’s Echo Show device, the company’s first screen-based voice speaker. YouTube was one of very few video options available on the Echo Show, with Amazon’s own Prime Video being the main alternative. YouTube videos would show up in response to certain searches, especially ones relating to video, and although I doubt anyone bought an Echo Show solely to use YouTube, losing it is a blow to the company. There’s a certain irony that this breach in the relationship between Amazon and Google has occurred in a week when we’ve seen signs of detente between each of these two companies and Apple, with Amazon again selling Apple TV hardware and Apple replacing Bing with Google as the search engine in Siri and OS-level search in its devices. I joked on Twitter that it’s almost as if there’s some universal equilibrium of big tech companies not playing nicely with each other that has to be maintained.
Of course, this is all part of the broader ongoing competitive dynamic between these various companies, which all need each other to varying degrees but often place limits on their interactions in areas where they can afford to do so. Though Amazon says the decision was unilateral and unexplained, Google said the implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show violated its terms of service, which makes you wonder whether the companies launched in a hurry and agreed to settle terms later, or whether Amazon simply built the YouTube app without Google’s input and hoped it wouldn’t mind. My guess is that the ToS violation in question here revolves around the lack of options for managing a YouTube account – I sent my Echo Show back after testing it for a review, but if I recall correctly, many of the standard YouTube features on other platforms were not available there, which was reflective of the Echo Show’s broad limitations on interactivity and functionality, something I pointed out in my review. YouTube was in some ways very much behind a platform wall which Amazon erected in front of it, and it seems Google finally decided it had had enough.
It’s worth remembering that Google and Amazon compete directly across several areas and have limited their cooperation in several others as a result: they compete in voice assistants and devices, for starters, but also in cloud services, in product search, in tablets (albeit indirectly), in grocery deliveries, in TV boxes, and so on. And as a result there have been limits to their cooperation – Amazon stopped selling Chromecast devices a while back and generally doesn’t participate in the Google Shopping feature alongside other major retailers, and appears to have resisted adding Chromecast features to its video apps. It’s possible that Google pulling YouTube was a way to exert pressure to get Amazon to sell Chromecast devices again as it has Apple TV devices – the timing likely isn’t coincidental. And Google certainly has far more leverage in this spat than Amazon – the Echo Show is a meaningless contributor to YouTube’s overall success, but the presence or absence of YouTube on the Echo Show is a much bigger deal for that device and its appeal. I don’t think Google will be in any hurry to settle the dispute unless it’s able to extract some concessions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that includes Amazon selling Chromecasts again.
via The Verge
Amazon Begins Selling Apple TV Hardware Again (Sep 26, 2017)
Amazon has quietly begun selling Apple TV hardware again, as part of the thawing in relations between the two companies. Apple has already announced that an Amazon video app is coming to the Apple TV shortly, so this is the first half of that two-part move, suggesting that the other shoe should drop soon. As I said a few months back, though some have suggested there was some tit-for-tat in Apple and Amazon’s frosty relations, the reality is that the barriers to playing nicely were all on Amazon’s side – the company could have built an app for the Apple TV as soon as the platform launched an App Store, but chose not to. I assume that was because of the App Store cut, but that’s been a feature on iOS too, and hasn’t stopped Amazon from launching video apps for that platform. Regardless, it’s likely that Apple has made some concessions on the App Store cut, and that that’s finally got Amazon on board as one of the last holdouts from the Apple TV, which should further increase the appeal of that hardware platform for those willing to pay the Apple premium to get their Transparent or Man in the High Castle fix.
Amazon is adding voice control features to its mobile music apps for iOS and Android to give users more ways to control their music even when they’re not using an Echo or other Alexa-enabled device. That’s a logical place to extend Alexa functions given that music playback is a major use for voice speakers, and the symbiosis between the two has already made Amazon Music a much more widely used service over the last couple of years that it would have been otherwise. A recent survey I ran suggested that under 20% of US Prime subscribers use the music feature, but even at 20% that would be millions of users in the US alone, and I would guess many of those are likely Echo users. Adding a voice feature to a third party app still isn’t nearly as convenient as invoking it from an external button or a voice command from the lock screen, but for those committed to Amazon’s ecosystem, this is still a useful value-add. We’re going to see the connection between voice and music become considerably stronger over the next few years, with Apple’s entry into voice speakers through the HomePod as well as Sonos’s announcement next week. A big question is whether voice becomes an important way to drive playback on mobile as well as in the home – voice assistant use on mobile remains fairly low overall and high mostly in specific circumstances like while driving, but that could change as assistants get more sophisticated in understanding commands relating to music, something Apple’s clearly been working on lately.
Amazon Runs Big Kindle Sale on Rival Alibaba’s Site in China (Sep 22, 2017)
Amazon is running a big sale of its Kindle hardware on rival Alibaba’s site in China, a concession that it’s way behind its domestic competitors and needs to leverage their platforms in the country to achieve meaningful hardware sales. It’s a useful reminder that, for all Amazon’s dominance in e-commerce in the US and a handful of other markets around the world, it’s largely failed to break into China in a meaningful way. One big reason is the same of localization that’s plagued other big US tech companies in China, something that Apple has recently been trying to fix. Amazon has arguably done much better with localization in India, which this Recode piece suggests is going rather better for Amazon at this point than its foray into China. It certainly isn’t giving up on China just yet, but does seem to be more willing to acknowledge its failures there and pursue other strategies to achieve at least some of its objectives there.
The Financial Times reports that Amazon is working on two new hardware categories: Alexa voice assistant-enabled glasses, and home security cameras which would integrate with Alexa hardware in various ways. The home security camera seems by far the less surprising of the two, given that it’s one of the bigger existing smart home market segments and a logical extension of what Amazon is doing with its Echo line (including the Echo Look, which already incorporates a camera). But it’s the voice-enabled glasses that are both surprising and somewhat baffling as a concept, especially because there’s no ostensible connection between glasses – a primarily vision-oriented product – and Alexa, a product centered on the ears. It sounds like the glasses are a way to hide bone-conduction audio in a less nerdy way than a bluetooth headset would, but for those who don’t normally wear glasses, aren’t they at least as nerdy, not to mention conspicuous? There’s arguably some logic to using bone conduction as a technology because it doesn’t block the ear in the same way as earbuds and headphones, but I’m really not convinced that glasses are the best way to deliver that experience. It’s also worth noting by way of context that Amazon has arguably never had a successful personal consumer device. Its one earlier attempt – the Fire Phone – was a huge failure, and all of its other devices are arguably less personal and more shared devices, often with fairly uninspiring industrial design which makes me skeptical that Amazon knows how to create appealing personal products. Given that the FT says both of these products could launch by the end of the year, I guess we’ll see the details soon enough, but I’m enormously skeptical on the glasses though the cameras seem like they’ll sell well, albeit now with stronger competition from Nest.
via Financial Times