Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos isn't comfortable being described as the next Steve Jobs.
"That is a very complimentary thing to say," he responds humbly, "but it's not how I think about it -- that way. I think we have our own approaches and vision. Nobody would ever be the next Steve Jobs. He was a unique guy, and, you know it would be..." His voice trails off as he searches for the right words. Then he says, "That's not how I think about it. But it's often meant as a compliment and I certainly receive it that way. I'm very grateful to that kind of question but that's not how I think about it."
We're sitting in a conference room in Amazon's offices in Seattle and the real topic of conversation isn't Apple or Steve Jobs but Amazon's new Kindle tablets, which Bezos has been briefing us on -- or really demoing some of their key new features. But I couldn't help asking "Jeff," as he's referred to at Amazon, whether he was the next Steve, because it seemed like something you should ask if you only had a few minutes with Jeff Bezos.
This year, instead of doing its typical staged event to unveil the company's next-generation products, Amazon gave several press outlets the opportunity to fly out to Seattle and meet with Amazon executives, followed by a 30-45-minute small-group meeting with "Jeff" himself. I ended up with Mashable's Lance Ulanoff and Consumer Reports' Donna Tapellini.
The meeting started with Bezos going to the whiteboard and describing the new "third leg" of the company's vision in the devices business. He'd laid out the first two pieces at previous Kindle Fire events but he refreshed our memories: 1) Premium products at nonpremium prices. 2) We want to make money when people use our devices.
Bezos has stated before that Amazon's model isn't about getting people on the upgrade treadmill and they're just fine with people using 3- and 4-year-old devices as long as they're using them.
"If we were making most of our money when people were buying the device, we would want people upgrading," Bezos says, perhaps taking a little jab at Apple. "We think this aligns us well with the customers."
Bezos then draws two overlapping circles on the whiteboard in the front of the room and talks about the third piece, the new leg that will now make a tripod: the intersection of "customer delight and deep integration throughout the entire stack."
Bezos' handwriting is a little hard to read -- he probably didn't get an A in penmanship -- so it helps that he's reading aloud what he writes. Still, the phrase "entire stack" sounds a bit wonky, especially when you combine it with "customer delight."
Bezos knows that, though. He knows what we're thinking.
"What do I mean by the entire stack?" he asks before we can.
At the bottom, he says, there's hardware and the OS. Then you have key apps, which includes the "content ecosystem." On top of that there's the cloud. And then services.
Bezos considers this framework or background for the demos he's about to give. We're about to experience that place where customer delight meets deep integration into the stack. It sounds a little more intense than it turns out to be.
The first thing he shows us is how Amazon's X-Ray feature for video, which ties into IMDB, has been enhanced to include call-outs to the music tracks that are part of the video (the feature is called "in-scene music"). You can now learn what song is playing as part of the soundtrack, then click on the title to get more info and buy it if you want. You can also click on other tracks that are part of the soundtrack and the video will jump to that scene where the track is playing.
There are also trivia notes you can access -- click on a particular note and you'll jump to that scene. Too much information for some, but Bezos says the X-Ray feature has become very popular with both readers and video watchers, particularly when consuming content that has many characters and complicated plot lines -- "Game of Thrones," for example.
Bezos says X-Ray is very much like a second-screen app but "now you're watching it in the video" on your Fire tablet.
Which he adds is a perfect segue to the next feature he's about to show, which is called Amazon Second Screen. He then demonstrates how you can stream a movie on a TV and use your tablet to get all that fun, extra X-Ray info on your tablet while your watching on the big screen. We get a few moments of "Under the Dome." (I later learn the feature works with Sony's PlayStation 3 and will eventually work with the PS4 and Samsung Smart TVs later this year).
Customer delight. Deep stack integration. And better yet, Bezos says, it all comes down from the cloud -- it's not mirroring, so your tablet's processor is free to do other stuff. While you're watching TV, you can surf the Web, read a digital magazine, play a game. Whatever.
He has more to show. X-Ray for music (you get to see the lyrics as the song plays). And a deep dive into the slick, new Origami covers for the new tablets. They're thin and come in seven colors. Bezos doesn't mention they start at $45.
I look down at the digital voice recorder I set down on the table in front of Bezos (I'm also using my iPhone as a backup recorder) and check the time. We're now about 15 minutes into our meeting, which is scheduled to go 30-45 minutes, according to an e-mail I received from a PR rep a few days earlier. We're probably 30 percent done, and at this point, I can't say I'm blown away by anything Bezos has shown. I'm more from the minimalist school of movie watching, where you watch the movie like you would in the theater. No extras. No trivia. And I managed to get through a couple of seasons of "Game of Thrones" on HBO, unaided.
However, I am impressed with Bezos' presentation and overall demeanor. Steve Jobs may have been known for his mock turtlenecks. Bezos, on the other hand, has this whole smart, casual look going, and seems to favor tight, fitted dress shirts. He seems fit, too (he later mentions that he only started working out when he was 35).
He's warm. Affable. Relaxed. And there's something commanding yet soothing about his voice, which makes you think he'd have made a good doctor if hadn't become a visionary entrepreneur with a predilection for disrupting markets, often brutally so. When you talk with him, there's no perception of Amazon being the pressure-cooker it supposedly is (a Seattle friend of mine claimed that an old saying around town was "friends don't let friends work for Amazon").
At one point, he invites everybody to move in a little closer, to gather around the new Kindle HDX 8.9-inch, so we can see the screen better. I can't really imagine Steve Jobs asking three journalists to huddle up with him to show off some new features on a new Apple device, but I never met with Steve Jobs, so I can't say that for sure. All I know is that within a few minutes of entering the room, we've been put at ease and are now under Bezos' spell.
It seems both odd and not odd that Amazon's CEO is giving us a personal demo of some of the new features on his company's new devices. What I find impressive is that Bezos has gone through this routine -- and presumably the same presentation -- multiple times already and will run through it multiple times after we've left with another set of reporters who will feel privileged to have gotten an audience with him. And yet the presentation seems fresh.
The question is why is Amazon rolling out its new products like this?
The more cynical view would be that tablets have become a little boring and having the press fly into Seattle to have a more intimate meeting with Bezos would spice things up (later Bezos will have another explanation, so read on). The fact is, while the devices seems quite good, particularly for their price points -- the HDX units are faster and leaner with very sharp screens -- I wouldn't say there's anything incredibly exciting about them, though I was more impressed with the Fire HDX 8.9 because it's very thin for its size. It also doesn't help that the specs for the new tablets were leaked on the Internet weeks earlier by The Boy Genius Report.
But Bezos does have one surprise for us. It's the new Mayday feature, which allows you to connect to an Amazon customer service representative by simply pressing a button (Amazon's goal is to have a rep respond in 15 seconds or less). Bezos taps on the Mayday button -- it looks like a life preserver -- and within a few seconds, a customer service rep pops up on his screen in a little window.
Bezos says the rep is there to help you figure out how to use certain features on your device if you run into trouble (Bezos refers to this a "teaching mode"), but you can also ask more general questions, like "What are some good apps to download?"
"What's the hot game people are playing now?" Bezos asks.
The rep tells him about Angry Birds Star Wars and helps Bezos to get into the Appstore by circling the Apps link on the device. Yes, the rep can see what you're looking at on your screen and draw on your device; he or she can even completely drive it, which seems both comforting and disconcerting. As Bezos gets set to input his password for the Appstore, the rep says he's turning off his screen, the equivalent of averting his eyes. Bezos then inputs his password.
It's immediately apparent that the Mayday concept is quite powerful -- and also a bit scary. In the commoditized world of tablets, the ability to provide instant customer support for free 24-7 is certainly a unique feature and selling point for the device (The three TV ad spots featuring Mayday will air soon; they're embedded below). I don't know if I would use the Mayday feature, but it seems like it would be very appealing to people who are a little intimidated by their tech devices. Bezos hopes Mayday will help give people a "feeling of empowerment over their devices."
At the same time, of course, Mayday crosses into the charged world of privacy and security issues.
When Lance from Mashable asks about how Amazon is going to "get ahead of security concerns," Bezos takes the question in stride (that's probably because he's already answered it 10 times already).
"There's the reality and there are misperceptions. We can't do anything about misperceptions. We can say what's going on and we can rely on people like you to clarify them. Any new thing creates a certain number of misperceptions. But what we have here -- this can only be instigated by the customer. It's actually way more controlled than going to a retail store and handing your device to a tech-support person because you can't even see what they're doing."
Bezos also points out that the video is only one way. Part of the reason for that is to conserve bandwidth for the video conference and part of it is so you don't have to worry about someone looking at you.
"So whose idea was it [Mayday]?" I ask, wondering if it's something he came up with.
"As with all large-scale innovation that's a very difficult to answer because what happens is someone comes up with the germ of an idea and then somebody says that will never work because of x,y, or z, and then someone comes up with refinement on the idea and it iterates like that...but this marriage of high tech and heavy lifting is something Amazon is particularly accustomed to. We have a long history of marrying those two things together."
Running out of time
The other little surprise Bezos has for us is the new version of the Kindle Fire HD. We'd been briefed on the Fire HDX models before meeting with him, but for some reason, Bezos has been tasked with showing off the entry-level $139 Kindle Fire HD, which is simply a redesigned version of last year's model that costs $60 less. To him, it's a stark representation of "Premium products for nonpremium prices" and he notes that Amazon adds up the bill of materials -- what it cost them to make the product -- and then basically sells it at cost.
It seems like a good time to ask about innovation, a loaded word these days in the Apple universe. I say that the hardware advancements are still coming but they seem more incremental, so does he see the real innovation coming in hardware or software?
He agrees that the pace of hardware innovation has slowed but there are still more gains to be made in performance and design (he talks about the lightness of the 8.9-inch HDX). Ultimately, however, the features that are going to really wow customers are those like Mayday.
"Is the hardware evolution extremely important?" he asks. "In my view it is. But if you look out toward the future, the software innovation, I think, is becoming important at an even faster rate."
I look at the timer on my voice recorder and see we're at just over the 31-minute mark, which means we could be tossed out at any time. It's been fun chatting, but Bezos has completely controlled the narrative, so I decide it's time to ease a few more provocative questions into the mix to see what happens.
I say: "You haven't brought video to other Android devices at this point. You guys are very customer-centric obviously. But is that [video] something you've held back to give this [the Kindle Fire line] some protection?"
Bezos thinks about it for a second, then politely declines to answer: "I guess I have to not want to answer your question just because it's a future roadmap question. So you'll have to stay tuned there. Sorry about that."
After Lance jokes about Bezos wearing a future Kindle watch (big laugh from Bezos on that), the PR person in the room jumps in and says, "We have time for a few more questions."
Lance then asks about an Amazon smartphone, which Amazon has said it wasn't going to do in 2014. "What's the reason for Amazon not to get into that space?" he asks. "Or is that a roadmap question?" he adds, giving Bezos an easy out.
"Yeah, that's just it. It's a roadmap question," Bezos says. "Today I want to focus on the new tablets. I don't want to speculate about the future."
I try a more general question, asking whether he likes doing presentations for a lot of people at an event or these types of small meetings. It goes back to why Amazon would announce new products in this fashion.
"As a personal preference?" he asks.
"Well, we've done it both ways before. We'll probably continue to do it both ways. But my personal preference is to shake things up. I don't like getting in a set way of doing it. I like doing it different ways, different years. We'll do events again in the future. And we'll probably do pre-briefings again in the future as well."
Knowing that time is short, we three journalists get in our final questions. And wedged in there I ask Bezos whether he's the next Steve Jobs.
We're then told that time is up.
I'd asked whether I could have a shot with Jeff for posterity and they said that was fine as long as it was for personal use, not publication, so we finish up by taking turns standing next to Jeff, who seems happy to oblige the photo request.
Towards the end I can't help slipping in one last question.
"Will you ever release any specific Kindle numbers in the future?"
"I doubt it," he replies bluntly, which gets a laugh from everybody. "Many, many millions is what we've said. And we'll probably stick with that."