The key moment in Jeff Bezos’s keynote announcing Amazon’s new Paperwhite Kindle and Kindle Fire models came before he introduced any of the new hardware. “People don’t want gadgets any more,” Bezos declared, explaining why the Kindle Fire had succeeded where other gadgety Android tablets had failed. “They want services that improve over time. They want services that improve every day, every week, and every month.” This statement of purpose signals a new phase in Amazon’s evolution as a company, and its singular, emerging take on the developing consumer marketplace, and how it’s positioning itself towards its broad field of competitors.
“The Kindle Fire,” he added, “is a service. It offers 22 million items. It calls you by name. It makes recommendations for you.” Bezos was talking about the Kindle Fire as if it were Amazon itself: the entire retail and technological experience made manifest in a single device. The future of Amazon, he seemed to be saying, isn’t the website; it’s this material portal, and others like it.
It’s a truism that computing today is driven by increasingly portable hardware backed up by cloud services and subscriptions, that the fun play of digital media is displacing software suites driven by text-based productivity, that subscriptions and proprietary stores are just as legitimate as pure hardware plays. But nobody distills that transformation to its purest essence quite like Amazon.
While Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook are all charting different evolutionary routes from PC to post-PC and from desktop to mobile, Amazon has largely been able to sidestep that entire problem. It’s borrowed what it’s needed to from all of its competitors — whether spiritually in the case of Apple’s iTunes, or materially in the case of Google’s Android — and moved on. While the iPad is still trying to prove itself in the face of criticisms that it’s only a media consumption device, a portable store in a fancy box, Amazon’s simply embraced that fate and never pretended otherwise.
“We want to make money when people use our devices, not when they buy our devices,” said Bezos. The Kindle Fire isn’t a gadget, but a store. It’s also the greatest store in human history.
This whole pedantic performance was Bezos underlining repeatedly: We’re not booksellers dabbling in hardware. We’re inventors. We’re pioneers. We demand to be taken seriously. If this also lets Amazon throw up a chart showing that it has at least one technical feature that Apple’s iPad and Google’s Nexus 7 don’t, so much the better.