As a world traveller and avid reader, I've found many local bookstores have become like second homes to me. I've spent many Decembers cozied up by the roaring fire of a small bookshop in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, poring over the latest novel I picked up. When in Paris I often drop into the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore where Earnest Hemmingway spent a lot of time. I could peruse the stacks for hours in search of the next gem to read.
Given my love of reading, I have been a big fan of Amazon since its inception. I met Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos when he was just starting the company and I was excited about his vision for selling books over the Internet. But from the beginning I feared that his operation would disrupt one of my favourite pastimes.
And my fears were warranted. Sadly, not long after Amazon launched its online bookstore, my favourite Woods Hole shop closed its doors. Thankfully the one in Paris is still open. The unfortunate truth is that independent bookstores are no match for Amazon's online bookstore and the introduction of eBooks. Many have left us in the name of progress.
As Amazon expanded to assume the role of global e-tailer, the convenience of buying what I want or need online has been indispensable for me and millions of others. I won't confess how much I've spent on Amazon this year but let's just say it's been a lot – and I haven't even started my Christmas shopping yet. Like its eBook service, I knew instinctively that this move into selling hard goods online would be a hit, too.
As eBooks took off I was also certain it was a brilliant move by Amazon to create an e-reader. The first Kindle made Amazon the king and with its WhisperSync technology, which allows you to sync your content across devices so you can pick up where you left off, Amazon basically defined how eBooks should work. Add to that the idea of creating Kindle apps for smartphones, tablets, and the web, and it was inevitable that Amazon would succeed spectacularly.
When rumours began to circulate that Amazon was working on a tablet, my interest was piqued, though I had major doubts. In fact, months before the first Kindle Fire was released I heard that Amazon planned to sell its tablet for close to what it cost to manufacture, and to make its money on the eBooks and services it would offer. Essentially the tablet would be the razor and the services would be the blades. Although I was still sceptical about whether Amazon could create a competitive tablet I knew that, like Steve Jobs, you could never write off Jeff Bezos when he put his mind to something.
When the first Kindle Fire came out, Apple's iPad had already been around for just over a year, and had pretty much defined what a tablet should be, despite being relatively expensive. There was clearly room for a cheaper tablet but once I got my hands on a Kindle Fire I was a bit disappointed with the actual design and variety of content available.
I wrote an article in which I chastised Amazon for putting the on/off button on the bottom of the tablet, since the natural UI calls for it to be on top for a more balanced design and easier access. I also dinged the original Fire for its low-res screen, calling it a rookie mistake. To be fair, its first entry into the tablet market was very functional and Amazon clearly understood its early shortcomings. After all, the goal was to get a product to market quickly.
This turned out to be a good move. It bought the company some time to refine its R&D centre's focus on tablets while giving it a competitive position in the market. While the first Kindle Fire was marginally successful, it gave Amazon an important entry point into the tablet market and allowed it to learn from the experience. This helped it enhance its version of Android and the Amazon apps and services that make up the new Kindle Fire HDX.
I visited Amazon's R&D centre, Lab 126, to get a preview of the Kindle Fire HDX, and I came away impressed. It is clear that Lab 126 has become a world-class R&D centre and it continues to hire some of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley to create new products and services for Amazon. I got a good grasp on how R&D centres work and what makes them successful when I served on Xerox Parc's Venture advisory board for three years, sneaking an inside view of Parc and its R&D process. As you likely know, Xerox Parc is in a class of its own and Lab 126 has similar strategies. It has become a major asset for Amazon and I suspect we will be amazed by what it produces in hardware, software, and services in the future.
I also came away impressed with the new Kindle Fire HDX itself. Having used one I can confidently say it is one of the most competitive consumer tablets on the market. With its new UI features and its live help service, Mayday, it delivers one of the best consumer experiences on a tablet, and at a reasonable price. And the collection of eBooks and media available from Amazon is equally as important.
With Lab 126 and the new and highly improved Kindle Fire HDX, Amazon has become a major force in tech R&D and tablets. It has shown serious prowess in hardware, software, and services design, and when looking at the big vendors in tablets, Amazon has to be considered a top five player. It will be fun to watch what else Lab 126 dreams up. I predict a Roku-like box soon, as well as future tablets that could further elevate its design expertise.