Dave Limp, Senior Vice President, Amazon Devices & Services, is passionate about the company he works for. When I meet him in London, he is relaxed and smiling, knowing that his company responded well to the Covid-19 crisis when home delivery services were in huge demand.
The company’s response was to try and take pressure off the health system. “In the first eight months of the pandemic, my team and I diverted a bunch of our supply chain organization to build Covid testing facilities. We didn’t want to take capacity out of the health system, so we developed our own lab in Kentucky to be able to test a million people a week. We were trying to keep our employees safe and as well as possible, knowing that they are doing pretty much an essential service.”
Limp’s passion for Alexa was evident from the time, several years ago, when he launched the service on stage in the UK, seamlessly gliding from one perfectly executed demo to the next. Now, he is as focused on ambient intelligence.
“As Alexa and smart home technologies have gotten more pervasive, it’s become clear that this is a kind of new user interface that customers are adopting. It’s not a fad: people interact with Alexa billions of times a week. And as we started digesting how people were using it, it informed how we were going to build the next iteration of it. We describe this concept as ambient intelligence.”
It involves how Alexa routes information on behalf of customers, in an intelligent way. Limp says, “increasingly, it’s doing it without the customer having to interact with it.”
He goes on, “Early on you had to say, ‘Alexa, play music’, or turn on the lights or whatever. Now, that is increasingly automated. In the smart home domain of lights and routines and the things that go along with that, over 25% of the actions are taken by Alexa without any interaction from the customer. So, you walk into a room and we have ultrasonic presence detection, and the lights automatically come on. Ten days in a row, you turn off your porch lights every night, but on the 11th day you forget. So, Alexa has a hunch and turns them off on your behalf. That’s one example of this idea that you can be intelligent but not necessarily transactional.”
That’s pretty cool. And to make things easier, Alexa is becoming increasingly conversational. More and more, you can make things happen without needing to say Alexa’s name at the start of every phrase. “If you want to be the Star Trek computer, we had to do this, and the technology has allowed us to build the systems underneath to make that begin to become real,” Limp explains. “We still have some ways to go, but what we can do now, the differences that have been achieved in even the last couple of years are pretty dramatic in terms of the experiences people are having in their homes. And it’s all in the cloud, so almost every benefit works not just on the latest Echo devices, for instance, but back to the very first ones.”
My personal moment of realizing things have changed came the first time I whispered a question to my Echo device and Alexa whispered back. Amazon has this kind of innovation in mind as it plans, looking beyond the obvious. “I don’t think ambient intelligence constrains you, but you can also ask, what would you think about otherwise? And that’s where often some interesting new ideas come from, things that might not be a straight line. They’re a little crooked or tangential, but they end up being interesting, they’re risky but they are very interesting inventions.”
Alexa is such a pervasive ingredient in so many pieces of hardware now, from Amazon and others, that I suggest maybe the hardware is almost secondary. “It’s always been that way, you know”, Limp replies quietly. “The original idea for what Echo, code-named Doppler, was to try to minimize the client footprint. The hardware had some big inventions there, the array microphone, and using a DSP (digital signal processor) to basically do far field speech. But the rest of the hardware that was in the original Echo was deliberately not that revolutionary because we wanted to make it as low-cost as possible. We wanted to make it disappear. For the most part the idea, and it’s still the case today, is you should be able to have that device for eight years or however long it is, and it should be getting better. I think that is the one of the biggest differences between Amazon’s consumer electronics organization from others: we deeply coupled devices and services together, not everybody does that, And then, the second thing is we never think about planned obsolescence for our hardware. If there’s still utility in it, we’re not beholden to any upgrade cycles. It’s not part of our business model. But the fact of the matter is it’s really unclear you need a new phone every year or two years.”
As for products having a long life, look no further than the original Kindle which, until recently was still going strong. So, customers who bought it back in November 2007 were still enjoying the free cellular connectivity14 years later to download books quickly. This only changed in recent months because the relevant data network was being deprecated. Eligible customers were recently sent the top-flight Oasis model as a replacement. More on the Kindle below.
The scene-stealer of last fall’s Amazon product reveal was Astro, the robot on wheels—another literal meaning for the words ambient intelligence. I ask how Astro is doing. “The amount of interest in it was by an order of magnitude higher than what I thought it would be. Before they end of the year, we shipped a small number of them, as we promised we would. And then, as with lots of day one editions, we wanted to start learning and we got some good feedback. We did one more software build early this year and got that out and started shipping to more customers. The reaction to his personality just continues to astound me. It’s more pet-like than it is computer-like. It’s not a pet, but it turns out that building a personality for it and giving that an actual user interface, in this case, with eyes and sounds and movement, was absolutely the right thing to do.”
The Kindle ebook reader is one of Amazon’s first hardware explorations, but is still relevant. Its latest iteration of Kindle Paperwhite is so good it will stop many from buying the pricier Oasis. And there’s more to follow, even if Limp won’t spill too many of the beans.
“The Kindle team continues to innovate. They have great ideas and so there’s a lot to eat. They’ve moved technologies down from Oasis into lower price points over time to give people access to those kinds of technologies, you know everything from 300ppi screens to a better front light to waterproofing. But the real secret to Kindle is the deeply integrated services. It is the virtuous circle. We built a great piece of hardware that people love to pick up and read. They don’t get distracted by TikTok, so they get more immersed. So therefore, they read more and that’s great for authors. It wasn’t bad for authors 20 years ago, it was just hard for authors. You had to get an agent and then maybe you got introduced to one of the small number of publishers in the world. And then maybe they greenlit your book and put marketing behind that book. And if all those stars aligned you might be a successful author. Part of that equation was supply, part of that was demand because there’s only so much shelf space for a book. And then you fast forward to Kindle and you have an infinite shelf space, Then we add Kindle direct publishing. Which means anybody can upload a Word document and publish overnight, you know, and they get the lion’s share of the revenue. And so that started forming that virtuous circle.”
There was also Kindle direct publishing, a subscription service where, “Authors can price their books for free. So, now demand goes up more and we give them a share of the subscription, and then we built a Prime benefit around it. So, you start plotting all these on a circle and you can see how it gets a bit of a flywheel.”
This is something of an understatement.
Sometimes, Amazon’s products routinely offer an alternative, rather than a replacement. Real books continue to sell, better than ever in many cases, so the fear that Kindle would kill books has not been realized. On the other hand, since the Echo launched, a smart assistant has been built into an awful lot of home speakers. What’s clear from talking to Dave Limp is that Amazon has plans to make its devices in general, and Alexa in particular, more essential than ever.