Yesterday at Recode’s Code Conference, Jeff Bezos spoke with veteran tech reporter Walt Mossberg and then answered many audience questions afterward. The hour-and-twenty-minute video is up on Facebook and YouTube, but Recode and other sites have quite extensive coverage of the choicest tidbits to emerge from the chat.
For starters, Bezos says that Amazon’s invested four years of research into the Alexa voice-assistant AI project, and the Amazon division responsible for Alexa and the Echo speakers now numbers more than 1,000 employees. These devices won’t replace phones, but they will nonetheless do a lot—and all the data Amazon collects is one of its biggest resources in being able to refine this sort of AI.
He also had a number of things to say about Amazon Prime’s services, such as streaming video. He doesn’t consider Prime Video to be a rival to Netflix, because people will pay for both of them for different reasons. He also adds that being connected to the $99 per year Prime retail service means Amazon can more easily trim costs for its original video productions.
“From a business POV for us, we get to monetize that content in an unusual way,” he said. “When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes in a very direct way.”
On a related note, he also explained the real reason Amazon doesn’t carry Chromecast or Apple TV products—or at least broadly hinted at it. Though insisting that private business discussions should remain private, he stressed the importance of getting “acceptable business terms” to put Amazon Prime Video on third party devices. While it’s easy enough to put Amazon Prime on a third party device, it comes down to whether the device manufacturer and Amazon are able to agree on terms. Apparently Amazon couldn’t come to agreements with Google or Apple—which is hardly a surprise, given how stridently both companies compete with Amazon in some areas of business.
Bezos didn’t mince words about venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who has turned out to be a financial motivator behind wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against blog conglomerate Gawker. Bezos said that such lawsuits don’t do anyone any good, least of all the instigator. He recommended developing a thick skin, because there’s just no good way to stop that kind of heckling.
“If you’re doing anything interesting in the world, you’re going to have critics,” he said. “If you can’t tolerate critics, don’t do anything new or interesting.”
And speaking of critics, Bezos said he’s not afraid of Donald Trump’s bluster, either, and that Trump’s threats against freedom of the press are downright un-American.
“It’s just a fact that we live in a world where half the population on this planet, if you criticize your leader, you could go to jail or worse,” Bezos said. “And we live in this amazing democracy, with amazing freedom of speech, and a presidential candidate should embrace that.”
Bezos had a few more things to say about various Amazon projects. Amazon has been investing heavily in expanding its shipping capabilities, but Bezos insists Amazon isn’t trying to destroy UPS or the US Postal Service. Amazon simply wants to be able to supplement their capabilities heavily, to take some of the pressure off. If Amazon could do a good job of that, it could certainly be helpful at times like the holiday season, when Amazon is more than capable of overwhelming shipping services all by itself. Bezos did say that Amazon wouldn’t mind getting better prices on transportation from UPS and the Postal Service, though.
In case you’re wondering when Amazon decides to give up on potential new projects, Bezos explained why Amazon tends to hold onto them to the bitter end. What it takes to kill a project at Amazon is for that project to lose all its high-ranking executive backers. “Most companies, especially larger companies, give up on things too soon.”
But Amazon won’t talk about what many of those new projects are. For example, when a reporter from The Verge asked him whether Amazon was working on wearables, Bezos was cagey about the answer. He didn’t say Amazon was, but didn’t say it wasn’t either. He did recommend that entrepreneurs should never discuss their product roadmaps.
And finally, Jeff Bezos talked about the drive behind his goal to expand commercial space flight through his rocket company, Blue Origin. He believes that the best way to protect the Earth is to move industrial processes into space. Energy won’t be an issue when you can get solar power 24/7. He also believes that people should visit and settle Mars, but unlike Elon Musk, he doesn’t see Mars as the main goal but as only one goal in a wider space program.
Bezos had many other things to say over the course of the 80-minute discussion, but most of them didn’t rate individual articles on them. They can be found in Recode’s liveblog of the event, though. Going back to Alexa, he talked about the importance of privacy when it comes to information collected by consumer devices, and that there will always be a tension between privacy and national security.
He also discussed Amazon’s physical bookstores, which are small enough you probably won’t find the book you’re looking for, but nearly all the books it carries have 5-star rankings on Amazon and Amazon plans to open more. He has key Amazon exec Steve Kessel running the bookstore program. He also sees the Washington Post as an important institution, which is why he bought it. The Internet took a lot away from publishing, he noted, but one of the gifts it brought is that distribution is basically free. The Washington Post is a lot like Amazon, Bezos said, because they both need to make a little money each from a lot of people, rather than a lot from just a few.
Bezos also said a few words about Amazon’s corporate culture, which teaches “work/life harmony.” He said Amazon has built a training program called “Career Choice” to help people get in-demand jobs, like truck drivers or airplane mechanics. The program has been around for a while, but is now being shared with other companies who want to use it. He invited people to email him at jeff (at) amazon.com if they were interested in learning more about it.
Bezos says that he “tap dances into work” because he loves his job, and he plans to be at the same job in five years. He has four kids, and his wife hates the term “empty nest”—so Bezos calls himself and her “super grownups” instead.
He also discussed the question of expansion in India versus in China. (Amazon expanded into India earlier this year.) Because the two markets are completely different, they take different strategies. Local market customization is more important in India than China.
That’s effectively all the news that’s fit to print about Bezos’s conversation at Recode yesterday. The biggest thing I noticed is that there didn’t seem to be a lot about e-books there. Not only did Mossberg apparently not raise the question, but neither did anyone in the audience—or if so, it wasn’t considered important enough for Recode to liveblog about it. I haven’t found the time to watch the whole interview personally yet, however.
It’s risky to generalize too much about something like that. Still, Amazon’s a huge company now with lots of fingers in lots of pies. While e-books helped the company expand over the last eight or nine years, other media seem to be the name of the game now that market saturation has set in. Maybe e-books are such an old reliable standby now, there’s not a lot of need to talk about them. That would seem to be in keeping with Amazon’s decision to release the super-expensive new Kindle Oasis before any new inexpensive models.