Say this about Amazon. It doesn't quit trying to innovate, even when its efforts seem far-fetched by contemporary standards.

Exhibit A: the Amazon Echo, the much-mocked, yet increasingly essential 9-inch tall cylinder that you talk to like the computer on Star Trek

Over on Bloomberg, writer Joshua Brustein has put together a fascinating history of the device's development. The whole article is well worth reading.

Here are some of the big takeaways, both about the culture that created it and how a $292 billion company can still come up with a truly innovative product. (Bonus content--free e-book--The Big Free Book of Success.)

1. The team that built it was huge ...

We write a lot about the inherent advantages that small, nimble startups can have over big, established ventures. However, big companies have one obvious advantage--they can throw people and money at a project at a massive scale.

How big? At its peak, Brustein writes, the team working on what would become the Echo had "several hundred employees" working in three cities. 

2. ... but anonymous ...

As we'll see, Amazon now envisions the Echo as a hub for everything in the "smart home" of the future. However, the idea of using it that way belongs to one anonymous employee, Brustein suggests. 

"On a lark, an [unnamed] engineer had rigged the speaker to work as a voice controller for a streaming TV device," he writes, and calls it "a forehead-slapping moment for [Jeff] Bezos." Another employee is quoted as saying the anonymous employee's idea was "was something [Bezos]  grew to embrace, aggressively."

3. ...and they grew in part out of failure.

Failure? Yes, because much of the team came over from two earlier R&D efforts. The first was an unidentified "Project C" that might have had to do with augmented reality "hologram-like displays projected into the physical world," according to Brustein. The second batch were veterans of the team that worked on the ill-fated Amazon Fire Phone.

Bezos refers to failure as the "inseparable twin" of invention in his recent letter to shareholders, Brustein points out.

4. The whole thing was a big secret.

A big enough secret that people working on other major projects at the same time--for example, the Fire Phone team (known as "Project B")--mostly had no idea about the Echo team (called "Project D") until the Fire team was moved en masse to the newer project.

"We certainly tried to keep things quiet," Brustein quotes a senior Amazon executive as saying.

5. The name was a big issue.

Two names, actually: 1. The Echo was originally called the Flash. Most employees didn't like the name, but Bezos loved it. 2. The original "wake word" that people would say to turn the machine on and get it ready to hear commands was "Amazon."

That was a big challenge, many of the engineers said, because the word is now used so commonly.

"A common opinion within Lab126 was that the project was hurtling toward a potential disaster: The speakers would wake upon hearing Amazon ads on television and commence buying random stuff from the internet," Brustein writes.

6. People are afraid of Bezos.

Challenging Bezos even on comparatively little things like the name was "a frightening proposition," Brustein writes, and quotes one member of the team: "We spent so much time trying to anticipate what Jeff would do or say, and read into little words he would say in meetings. ... It would lead to so much additional work."

In fact, now that the Echo is out, much of the team that helped create it has moved on. Sometimes they left for new opportunities, Brustein writes, but also because of "burnout after the long workdays; bitterness after years of the blood sport of internal politics."

"None of the former employees interviewed for this story quibbled with Amazon's reputation as a brutal workplace," Brustein writes. "When asked whether it was inherently 'fun' to work on a product like the Echo, one former employee scoffed that, to describe Amazon, no one had ever used that word with a straight face."

7. It was supposed to be much cheaper.

The original goal was to make the Echo for $17 a pop and sell it for $50. The retail cost in the end? $180.

The biggest challenge was simply packing all of the processing power--much more than originally anticipated--into the package, Brustein writes. 

8. But the company sells a ton of them.

Amazon famously doesn't release data on how well its products sell. Good luck finding out how many Kindles people have bought over the years. (Three for me, since they first came out, if you want to start counting somewhere.)

That said, Brustein cites a report concluding that Amazon probably has sold three million Echo devices so far--and that one million of those sales came during the holiday season last year. Multiply that volume by the $180 retail cost, and we come up with $540 million worth of product so far.

9. They've got net effects going.

Perhaps the most important point for Amazon in its effort to make the Echo a mainstay of the average home is the fact that independent developers have started creating apps that let you use the voice controls to accomplish all kinds of tasks. (Imagine how much less useful the iPhone and Android smartphones would be if not for the app stores, for example.)

As Brustein writes, maybe a bit hopefully: "The Echo may have seemed like a superfluous toy at first, but it now looks like a way for Amazon to become the default choice in a whole new era in the way people interact with computers and the internet."

Have you tried the Echo? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. And don't forget to download the extra bonus e-book--The Big Free Book of Success.

 

Published on: Apr 20, 2016
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