Tag Archives: Amazon

Crazy Predictions: Amazon Kindle


Yeah, I tend to get overly enthusiastic about new devices. And so does a large part of the “tech press.” But, once in a while, a device comes which pretty much everyone predicts will fail. So, recently, I’ve been thinking about playing devil’s advocate with those predictions. Basically, stating that some device which seems to be doomed from the start (”a dud,” “another DOA product”) will in fact succeed. Kind of a creative exercise.Case in point, Amazon’s just released Kindle eBook reader:Amazon.com: Kindle: Amazon’s New Wireless Reading Device: Kindle StoreThe consensus opinion seems to be that it’s “too little, too late” or that the product doesn’t meet its set goals. In other words, a big “hype factor” (hyperbolic language surrounding its release) for something which isn’t that revolutionary.  Tech enthusiasts aren’t impressed. But they do get to think, yet again, about books from a technological standpoint.I happen to think that the Kindle will likely fail. But if it does eventually succeed, what will I need to rethink?

  1. Screen readability trumps everything else.
    • I tend to read a lot of things (including student assignments) on computer screens. But many people keep saying that they can’t read from a computer screen for a very long period of time. If E Ink is in fact so much more readable than a computer screen that it makes a real difference, maybe the Kindle is one of those things you adopt once you try them.
  2. The hardcover’s form factor can work.
    • Looks like the Kindle is too big to fit in a pocket. “Conventional wisdom” (and experience with Newton MessagePad devices) says that handheld devices should fit in pockets. So, if the Kindle works, it means that the form factor isn’t an issue. And, in this case, there’d be some logic to it. Compared to a hardcover book, the Kindle is relatively small. And it’s incredibly small when compared to the number of books it could replace. I tend not to like hardcovers because of their form factor but having a single hardcover to replace any number of books and magazines could make me change my mind.
  3. There’s room for single-function devices.
    • What is already discussed with the Kindle is that multipurpose devices (say, Apple’s iPhone) can serve the “book-reading function” to a certain extent. If it is the case, then people are unlikely to spend as much on a device which only does one thing than on a device which can do a number of things. Yet, “book-reading” is among the trickiest things computer-based technology can do and a case is often made for a device which “does one thing and does it well.”
  4. Free wireless access is a “killer app” and Sprint’s EVDO (used by Kindle) could do. For now.
    • I tend to think a lot about free wireless connectivity, these days. In my mind, the stage seems to be set for the true “wireless revolution.” So I imagine convenient devices which do all sorts of neat things thanks to ubiquitous wireless access, either from cellphone networks or from computer networks. In fact, I keep imagining some kind of “cross-technology mesh network device” which could get connectivity through WiFi/WiMax and/or cellphone 3G, and redistribute it to other devices. Partly the model used for the OLPC’s XO, but brought to an even broader concept. Speeds are sufficient at this point for simple use and there could be ways to alleviate some bandwidth problems.
  5. People are willing to pay for restricted content.
    • I’m a proponent of Open Access and I really think openness is the direction where most Internet-manageable content is headed. But it’s quite possible that people are passionate about some compelling content that they will be willing to pay for access to it regardless of what else is available. In other words, if people really want to read some specific books, they are going to pay for the privilege to read it when they want. That’s probably why some public libraries have fees on best-sellers. I still don’t understand why people would need to pay to access blog content, but maybe paying for blog content will make blogs more “important.”
  6. Not needing a computer is a cool feature.
    • Some people simply don’t have computers, others only have access to public computers, yet others would prefer to leave computer use as a part of their work life. It’s quite likely that, as a standalone device, the Kindle could win the hearts of many people who would otherwise not buy any portable device. In fact, I kind of wish that other handheld devices were less reliant on computers. For instance, even MP3 players with wireless capabilities usually need to be connected to computers on occasion (though Microsoft’s new Zune firmware does eliminate the need for a computer to synchronise podcasts). The difference can be huge in terms of “peace of mind.” Forgot to add new content to your device? Easy, you can fetch it from anywhere.
  7. Battery life matters.
    • At this point, most handheld devices have pretty decent battery life in that you only have to recharge the batteries once a day. But, if the Kindle really does get 30 hours of battery life, it could have an excellent “peace of mind” factor. Forgot to plug in your device, last night? That’s ok, you still have a long time to go before the battery is drained. When you’re travelling for a few days, this could be really useful as it’s often annoying to have to recharge your devices on a regular basis. There’s also something to be said about non-volatile memory (that’s one reason I miss my Newton MessagePad).
  8. Design style needs not be flashy.
    • The Kindle looks rather “clunky” from pictures but it seems that part of this might be on purpose. The device isn’t meant as a fashion statement. It’s supposed to be as “classy” as a book. Not sure the actual device really looks “classy” in anybody’s view but there’s something to be said about devices which “look serious.”
  9. People don’t need colour after all.
    • Grayscale displays have been replaced by colour displays in most handheld devices, including MP3 players and PDAs. But maybe colour isn’t that important for most people.
  10. Jeff Bezos is a neat fellow
    • Maybe the current incarnation of the Kindle is just a way to test the waters and Bezos has a broader strategy to take not only the book world but also all the “online content” world with the Kindle. So, maybe the next Kindle will do audio and/or video. And maybe, just maybe, it could become a full-fledged “Internet appliance.”

So… Just for fun, I’m predicting that the Kindle will be a huge success.


Customer Service on the Phone: Netflix

An interesting piece about the move, by Netflix, to phone-only customer service.
Victory for voices over keystrokes | CNET News.com

Much of it sounds very obvious. Customers tend to prefer phone support instead of email. Customer service representatives who take more time on the phone with customers are more likely to make people happy. Many customers dislike offshoring. Customer service can make or break some corporations. Customers often have outlandish requests. Hourly salaries in call centres will vary greatly from one place to the other, even within the same area.

In other words, Netflix has done what many people think a company should do. We’ll see how it all pans out in the end.

The main reason this piece caught my attention is that I have been doing surveys (over the phone) about the quality of the service provided by customer service representatives over the phone. Not only am I working in a call centre myself (and can certainly relate with the job satisfaction which comes from empathy). But several of the surveys I do are precisely about the points made in this News.com piece. The majority of the surveys I do are about the quality of the service provided by customer service representatives (CSRs) at incoming call centres for a big corporation. So I hear a lot about CSRs and what they do well. Or not so well. One answer I’ve been hearing on occasion was “I’d appreciate it if I could talk to people who are a bit less courteous but who know more about the services the company is providing.” After interactions with several CSRs and tech support people, I can relate with this experience on a personal level.

The general pattern is that people do prefer it if they can speak directly (over the phone) with a human being who speaks their native language very fluently and are able to spend as much time as it takes with them on the phone. Most people seem to believe that it is important to be able to speak to someone instead of dealing with the issue in an “impersonal” manner.

Sounds obvious. And it probably is obvious to many executives, when they talk about customer service. So email support, outsourcing, offshoring, time limits on customer service, and low wages given to customer service representatives are all perceived by customers as cost-cutting measures.

But there’s something else.

We need the “chunky spaghetti sauce” of customer service. Yes, this is also very obvious. But it seems that some people draw awkward conclusions from it. It’s not really about niche marketing. It’s not exactly about customer choice or even freedom. It’s about diversity.

As an anthropologist, I cherish human diversity. Think of the need for biological diversity on the level of species but through the cultural, linguistic, and biological dimensions of one subspecies (Homo sapiens sapiens).
Yes, we’re all the same. Yes, we’re all different. But looking at human diversity for a while, you begin to notice patterns. Some of these patterns can be described as “profiles.” Other patterns are more subtle, harder to describe. But really not that difficult to understand.

The relationships between age and technology use, for instance. The common idea is that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be “into technology.” “It’s a generation thing, you know. Kids these days, they’re into HyPods and MikeSpaces, and Nit’n’do-wee. I’m too old to know anything about these things.”

Yeah, right.

All the while, some children are struggling with different pieces of technology forced unto them and some retirees are sending each other elaborate PowerPoint files to younger people who are too busy to look at them.

To go back to customer service on the phone. Some people are quite vocal about their preference for interactions with “real human beings” who speak their native language and are able to understand them. Other people would actually prefer it if they could just fire off a message somewhere and not have to spend any time on the phone. On several occasions having to do with customer service, I do prefer email exchanges over phone interactions. But I realize that I’m probably in the minority.

Many people in fact deal with different situations in different ways.

One paragraph I personally find quite surprising in the News.com piece is about the decision to not only strengthen the phone-based support but to, in effect, abolish email support:

Netflix’s decision to eliminate the e-mail feature was made after a great deal of research, Osier said. He looked at two other companies with reputations for superb phone-based customer service, Southwest Airlines and American Express, and saw that customers preferred human interaction over e-mail messages.

Sounds like a knee-jerk reaction to me. (It’d be fun to read the research report!) I’m pretty sure that most business schools advise future executives against knee-jerk reactions.

One thing which surprises me about the Netflix move is that, contrary to Southwest Airlines and American Express, the Netflix business is primarily based on online communication and postal services. My hunch is that a significant number of Netflix users are people who enjoy the convenience of one-click movie rentals without any need to interact with a person. Not that Netflix users dislike other human beings but they may prefer dealing with other human beings on other levels. If my hunch is accurate to any degree, chances are that these same people also enjoy it when they can solve an issue with their account through a single email or, better yet, a single click. For instance, someone might like the option of simply clicking a button on the Netflix website to put their rental queue on hold. And it might be quite useful to receive an email confirmation of a “Damaged Disc Report” (SRC: DISCPROBLEM) instead of having to rely on a confirmation number given on the phone by a friendly CSR in Oregon or, say, Moncton.

Yes, I’m referring to the specific instances of my interactions with Netflix. While I’d certainly appreciate the opportunity to speak with friendly French-speaking CSRs when I have problems with plane tickets or credit cards, I like the fact that I can deal with Netflix online (and through free postal mail). Call me crazy all you want. I’m one of those Netflix customers who find it convenient to deal with the company through those means. After all, Netflix is unlikely to have such an influence on my life that I would enjoy spending as much as ten minutes on the phone with friendly Oregonians.

As an ethnographer, I have not, in fact, observed Netflix to any significant extent. I’m just a random customer and, as it so happens, my wife is the one who is getting rentals from them. What little I know about the Netflix business model is limited to discussions about it on tech-related podcasts. And I do understand that Blockbuster is their direct target.

Yet it seems to me that one of the main reasons Netflix has/had been succeeding is that they went into relatively uncharted territory and tapped into a specific market (mixed analogies are fun). Even now, Netflix has advantages over “traditional” DVD rental companies including Blockbuster the same way that Amazon has advantages over Barnes and Noble. It seems to me that Amazon is not actively trying to become the next Barnes and Noble. AFAIK, Amazon is not even trying to become the next Wal-Mart (although it has partnered with Target).

Why should Netflix try to beat Blockbusters?

What does this all mean for corporate America?

These Are a Few of My Favourite Books

Here are my current Listmania Lists on Amazon. Nothing fancy yet. Will definitely have to edit it, adding comments, sorting books more carefully. And there’s no real discovery there, as most of these books and authors are well-known and somewhat older.

These are mostly fiction and literature, though there’s a couple “non-fiction” books in there. Have mostly read books in French, so my favourites in French already amount to two lists (of 25 books each). Some of these books were in another language originally. As a French-speaker, it’s my policy to either read books in the original or in a French translation.

Could really go on and on, there. Some of these authors have been quite prolific and my taste for their books isn’t limited to one or two. Boris Vian is one of them. He also wrote important songs, books about Jazz, drama, short stories, etc. Though he was a «zazou» (“zoot”) and appreciated many parts of U.S. culture, his work is really tied to the French language and, apparently, his work has almost no equivalent in English.

Other authors whose complete works I’ve read or tried to read: Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, Jean Giono, Maurice Leblanc, Marcel Pagnol, Douglas Adams, Woody Allen, John Irving, Robertson Davies, and “Alfred Hitchcock” (actually, a series of children/teenage books written by ghost writers under Hitchcock’s name). Should really do a kind of chronological list. Might even do something similar for music, though that might be more time-consuming (been listening to a lot of quite diverse music for a while).

Ah, well…