Tag Archives: amazon

Patience and impatience in the tech industry

There’s a great line from an iPad Pro article by Ben Brooks, where he’s discussing how Steve Jobs was always conscious of shipping only Apple’s best work:

The key difference between Gates and Jobs isn’t the vision, it’s the patience, or if you prefer the unwillingness to ship something which isn’t great.

I’ve been thinking about the time just before the iPad was announced. We didn’t know what form it would take, how much it would cost, or even what OS it would run. At the time, I even wanted it to run Mac OS X. From one of my blog posts in 2008:

The primary market for a Mac tablet is the millions of people who look at the Wacom Cintiq and drool. An Apple tablet has to run full Mac OS X because it has to run Photoshop, Acorn, and Painter.

It’s easy in hindsight to say how wrong I was, that of course it should run iOS. And today I’d agree; iOS 9 on the iPad is great. But I thought a tablet would be particularly good for artists, and basing it on the Mac would be the only way to hit the ground running with a stylus and mature graphics software.

That brings us back to patience, and how Apple rolls and iterates. It has taken 6 years from the original iPad introduction to the iPad Pros we have today that fulfill what I had hoped a tablet could be. Was it worth the wait? Yes. But that’s a long time, and a more impatient company might’ve taken a different path to get here, and they wouldn’t have been wrong.

I’m not actually thinking about Microsoft here, but Amazon. Amazon is so impatient not just with hardware development but everything else that even overnight delivery for their customers isn’t fast enough.

When I pre-ordered the Amazon Echo on a whim a year ago, I’m not sure that Amazon really had any idea what they were doing, whether it would flop or succeed, or if anyone would understand it. A year later, they own the market for this kind of device and it’s spread by word of mouth because the product is good. If Apple ever makes an Echo competitor it will be years from now and only because someone else proved the idea first.

Patience is good, and I’m glad that Apple has a great balance between innovating on brand new products and perfecting existing concepts. But I’m also glad that not every company is as patient as Apple. I think the industry makes better progress when some companies aren’t afraid to ship something half-baked too early.

Amazon Echo

Dan Moren wrote on Six Colors last month about the Amazon Echo. On the voice recognition working so well:

“The Echo’s hardware deserves a full share of that credit. The microphones on this device are impressive; even when I’m several rooms away, Alexa rarely mishears me. I’ve triggered it from my kitchen and from my hallway, the latter of which doesn’t even have line of sight to the Echo.”

I have one too. I pre-ordered it on a whim and then promptly forgot about it for 2 months. Then seemingly the next thing I knew it had showed up at my house. If I had remembered about the order, I might have cancelled it, but now I’m glad I didn’t. The Amazon Echo is great.

I remarked on Core Intuition that it’s like a task-specific Siri, with better accuracy because there are limited things you want to ask it. Play some music, set a timer, measurement conversions. It can’t do everything, but what it can do is particularly useful in the kitchen or living room. Plus it’s probably the best wireless speaker we’ve ever owned.

Because it’s so effortless to play music now, I’ve uploaded some tracks from iTunes to the Amazon cloud via their music uploader. (Remember when we wanted DRM-free music? This is a concrete reason why.) And since we have an Amazon Prime membership, I’ve discovered that we have a significant amount of good music in the cloud already.

I’m looking forward to Apple Music and will probably subscribe, but I’ve realized after having the Echo for a while that Amazon is quietly sitting on something pretty special. They should do more with music — I didn’t realize until now that they even had a dedicated iOS music app — and more to build and promote their service. Music is in their “DNA” just as much as it’s in Apple’s. After all, Amazon’s 2nd offering after books was music CDs.

New CEO and Windows Azure

While writing about Microsoft’s new CEO, Brent Simmons makes the case for Azure as important competition for Amazon:

“My worry about the future is an Amazon monopoly on cloud services. Amazon’s services are fantastic, and they’ve changed how people make web apps. But they should not be the only game in town.”

I agree. When AWS goes down now, it seems like half the internet doesn’t work. Except for a few lingering DNS entries, I moved everything from Amazon to Linode last year in a cost-cutting attempt. But even better, I’d like to run some of my services across multiple cloud providers. That’s difficult to manage today as a one-man shop.

(Brent’s post is also worth reading just for the WOES acronym.)

Hosting costs and config

A few things have changed since I last talked about hosting. Tweet Marker passed 200,000 total users to the API. There are more apps and more platforms. And of course Plus launched with new requirements for database and search indexing of tweets.

Here’s a graph showing monthly hosting costs for the last year, stopping just short of $600/month for April:

Tweet Marker hosting chart

The first dip was when I moved away from Heroku’s dedicated PostgreSQL database, to Redis on EC2. The more recent increase is when I updated capacity for Tweet Marker Plus.

Tweet Marker currently runs on both Heroku and Amazon EC2. On Heroku, there are 6 dynos: 5 web dynos with 3 Unicorn processes each, and 1 background worker. I also run hourly scheduled tasks that add a small number of extra dyno-hours, and sometimes I’ll fire up additional temporary workers.

For Amazon, I run with 3 medium server instances: 1 for Redis master, 1 for Redis slave, and 1 for search with MySQL and Sphinx. The search server is partitioned across multiple EBS volumes, each one mounted as a separate MySQL database and Sphinx index. It is possible for me to move a database or search index shard to a different EC2 instance if I need to, as well as move customers between shards.

The volumes look like this in Amazon’s admin UI:

Tweet Marker volumes

I picked 20 GB shards because it seemed like about the point where the database would be too big to be fast, given the modest hardware. It’s enough to hold several months of tweets for all the users in a shard. I estimate how many users should be in each shard, and when it reaches that number I roll new accounts to the next shard, and so on.

Backup dumps for the Redis database and MySQL get sent to S3 every hour and every day, where I keep the last 24 hourly backups and the last 31 daily backups. I also do occasional EBS snapshots.

I don’t currently need a MySQL slave for backups. If I lose a drive, when I restore the last hourly backup, Tweet Marker Plus will automatically add any missing tweets lost during the downtime to bring things back to a current state.

Overall I’m happy with this setup. It’s as simple as I could design it. Hosting is not cheap, but I think I can run for the rest of the year with very few changes and mostly fixed costs. I also plan to switch to reserved instance pricing at Amazon, which should be a significant discount.

If you’ve made it this far, you probably care enough about servers and Twitter that you should consider signing up for Tweet Marker Plus yourself. Check out the details here.

Where Apple went wrong with free apps

John Gruber has a solid summary of the issues around in-app purchase. Regarding the closed platform:

“iOS isn’t and never was an open computer system. It’s a closed, controlled console system — more akin to Playstation or Wii or Xbox than to Mac OS X or Windows. It is, in Apple’s view, a privilege to have a native iOS app.”

This is the root of nearly every strength and problem with the App Store. I’ll never be happy about it. But in-app purchase restrictions are even more complicated than that. It started not just with the controlled environment but the decisions around free apps.

Michael Tsai points to this Peter Oppenheimer quote from late February that Apple runs the App Store at “just a little over breakeven”. I’ve argued that Apple’s 30% tax is about growing that to significant profit at the expense of developers, but in the back of my head I’ve also been concerned that maybe it’s just to keep the App Store from falling into the red. Maybe they are really struggling under the weight of what they created, and long app review times and lack of focus around the Mac App Store launch are just symptoms of that.

If this is true, then I’m more sympathetic to Apple’s predicament. They aren’t being greedy; they’re just trying not to lose money. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t make a mistake.

Steve Jobs, announcing the App Store in March 2008:

“You know what price a lot of developers are going to pick? Free, right? So when a developer wants to distribute their app for free, there is no charge for free apps. At all. There’s no charge to the user, and there’s no charge to the developer. We’re going to pay for everything to get those apps out there for free. The developer and us have the same exact interest, which is to get as many apps out in front of as many iPhone users as possible.”

I remember being surprised when I heard this. We take for granted now that much of the App Store’s success is because of free apps, but I’m not sure it had to be that way. The iTunes Music Store launched with a full paid catalog of music. Many of the hits in the App Store, like Angry Birds and Doodle Jump, have never been free.

But watching Steve Jobs from 2008, you can tell Apple was worried that what happened to the Mac (lack of third-party apps and games) might happen to the iPhone as well, so they gambled the profitability of the App Store away to encourage as many apps as possible. That was their choice.

Again, from Steve Jobs: “We keep 30% to pay for running the App Store.” Not a profit center. Not a business. Just to pay for running the store, so that the user experience for app discovery on the iPhone is second to none.

Today, we know that Apple has never planned well for free apps. You don’t need to look much further than their reversal of allowing in-app purchase in free apps to see that they are making this stuff up as they go along.

When Steve Jobs said it, offering free apps for so little seemed almost foolish, like Apple was compensating for the high 30% by giving too good a deal to free apps. Why not charge some hosting fee? Or why not give up exclusive distribution and let free apps be installed directly by the user without forcing everything through the App Store? Unlimited bandwidth, promotion in the store, and everything else just for the $99 dev program fee was a pretty good deal.

And now I wonder if Apple hasn’t been backpedaling ever since, trying to make up for that mistake: free apps are a burden. iAd was the first correction, because a share of revenue from free apps was going to Google instead of Apple. In-app purchase is the next correction, because real value can be delivered in a free app with transactions handled elsewhere.

Apple can’t accept a future in which too many apps are technically free — something that has already happened on Android — unless they are also taking a cut when money changes hands outside of app download.

Matt Drance clearly spotted the loophole that forces Apple to be so strict with in-app rules:

“30% to Apple across the board — app sales, IAP, and now subscriptions — is consistent, clear, and uncheatable. That cheating bit is significant: a 10% commission for subscriptions, for example, would see developers adopting the subscription system en masse so they could keep more money. Apps that were once $2.99 would suddenly be asking for installments like late-night infomercials.”

Apple is trapped by their original decision to shoulder the cost of free apps. They encouraged free apps and now they’ve got one band-aid on top of another — advertisements, in-app purchase, subscriptions — all trying to make free apps work for the App Store bottom line. These changes make developers nervous because all the power lies with Apple.

Free apps and the problem of exclusive distribution are linked. Get rid of free apps, and the store can support itself naturally. Get rid of exclusive distribution, and Apple can be more creative about charging developers who do want to participate in the App Store. If Amazon isn’t happy with Apple’s terms, users can install the Kindle app outside the store and it doesn’t cost Apple anything to maintain.

Apple, want to charge 30%? Go for it. Want to make the submission rules more strict? Fine. Want to adjust how you run the App Store to reflect what’s happening in the market? No problem. Just give developers an out. We are going to be back here year after year with the latest controversy until exclusive app distribution is fixed.

NDA and overnight optimism

Last week I blogged about “my experience with a late Amazon order”:http://www.manton.org/2008/09/almostright_amazon.html, commenting that I was a happy customer again after they apologized. Even after being mistreated, customers will forgive everything if only the company does the right thing in the future. It’s the same way an angry customer will fire off a support email rant but then become an advocate for the company if the company responds quickly and honestly.

Thank you, Apple. “Lifting the NDA”:http://developer.apple.com/iphone/program/ has turned the whole developer community into optimists overnight.

Almost-right Amazon response

I placed an order on Amazon last week and chose Amazon Prime overnight shipping, something I do pretty often. The package was late. Even on Saturday, when the package was nowhere near Texas, the Amazon order page still showed estimated delivery for Friday.

I emailed support asking for a refund of the $3.99 overnight charge since they failed to ship on time, and the answer I got back surprised me. They would refund it “this one time”, but in the future I should know they don’t do Saturday delivery. All the details I had provided in my email had been glossed over, and instead they had essentially called me an idiot.

The refund itself was irrelevant. It’s just 4 bucks. But please don’t blame the customer. Even if it’s not your fault, but especially when it is!

(A second email with Amazon cleared up the matter and they apologized. I’m a happy customer again.)

I’ve blogged before about “refunds in the context of customer support”:http://www.manton.org/2007/02/customer.html, and this Amazon situation just underscores that how you treat your customer is actually more important than the money. I would have been much less upset if they had refused to refund the shipping, but at least acknowledged that I was right about the order date and expected delivery.

More on Kindle

I received a lot of feedback after “I first wrote about the Kindle”:http://www.manton.org/2007/11/kindle.html, so here’s an update. I admit I’m still trying to understand the device; it has not immediately fallen into a spot in my routine the way the iPod and iPhone did.

“Dan Benjamin”:http://www.hivelogic.com/ pointed out that it’s wrong to compare the Kindle and iPhone because they are two completely separate kinds of devices, and that’s true. But the fact remains that Amazon could have partnered with AT&T and required a monthly fee for connectivity. Instead they chose to eat that cost to provide a seamless user experience.

“Willie Abrams”:http://willie.tumblr.com/ bought a Kindle and then returned it, unhappy with both the contrast on the device and the slow page turns. As I pointed out in my original post, the page turns are annoying, but they won’t ruin the device for most people.

“Andy Ihnatko”:http://ihnatko.com/ wrote glowingly about the Kindle and spoke at length on MacBreak Weekly about the free wireless and adequate web browser. Personally I have found the web browser to be extremely poor and the slow refresh inappropriate for modern, interactive sites. I didn’t even realize it came with a browser when I ordered it, though, so I consider it a nice bonus.

When I left town to take a week and a half holiday road trip with my family, I decided to leave the Kindle at home. After all, I already had my MacBook, iPhone, Nintendo DS, and a hardback book that would easily fill the week. The Kindle is small but it would just be wasted clutter in my backpack.

This turned out to be a mistake. For one, I had spotty Edge coverage in middle-of-nowhere West Texas, and it would have been an interesting experiment to see how the Kindle’s EVDO faired in other cities. But more importantly, while checking blogs someone recommended a book that I was interested in. I clicked through to Amazon and noticed that it was available in Kindle format. It would have been the perfect opportunity to buy it and start reading right away.

That is what the Kindle brings to the table. The hardware design is not an improvement over the Sony Reader (the Kindle’s keyboard remains a definite mistake), but the integration with Amazon and the convenient downloads from anywhere are both well implemented. I think Amazon has a history of tinkering in public view (home page design, shipping experiments), and the Kindle is no exception. They’re no doubt already working on version 2.

Kindle

All we do at “VitalSource”:http://www.vitalsource.com/ is e-books, from working with publishers on converting their content to our format, to managing the delivery of digital files and building the web-based infrastructure to support it, and finally to designing and coding the Mac and Windows applications for reading and annotating books. My “Kindle”:http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Amazons-Wireless-Reading-Device/dp/B000FI73MA arrived on Tuesday, the day after it was released, and here are my initial thoughts after using it over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Out-of-box experience. Amazon really nailed the first-use experience. The Kindle came in a nice box and was pre-configured with my Amazon account. No syncing or setup necessary; you can start reading books immediately.

Screen. If you haven’t seen an e-ink device — actually held one in your hands, like the Sony Reader — don’t bother “reviewing” it. The iPhone screen is beautiful and I would love to have a small Mac tablet, something even a little bigger than the Kindle, but for reading books, nothing beats e-ink. It’s in a whole different class, and this is one of the areas where the Kindle shines. (It says a lot that the first FAQ item in the Kindle manual is about how the screen “flicker” when flipping pages is normal, though. It’s a little distracting but not a show-stopper.)

Connectivity. Amazon has been innovating with free shipping for years, so in a way it’s perfectly consistent to also offer free wireless connectivity. As a long-time Apple fan, I’m a little disappointed that Amazon is the one innovating with service plans, while Apple is stuck in the past with service contracts and high monthly fees with silly text message caps. I pay about $80/month for the privilege of using my iPhone; with the Kindle, I pay only for purchased content.

Purchasing. You can buy books from Amazon on your computer or from the Kindle itself, and I’ve tried both. My first purchase was using Safari on my Mac, and less than a minute later the book “magically” appeared on my Kindle. Again, no cables or sync necessary; the Kindle notices a book purchase and downloads it wirelessly.

Hardware. It couldn’t all be good news, could it? The button design is where the Kindle just falls on its face, and it’s bad news for both major areas of the device: the keyboard and the page navigation buttons. I just don’t see how they justified taking up so much room for the keyboard, because in truth you almost never need to use it. For the page buttons, try handing someone a Kindle for the first time and the first thing they do is accidentally hit next or previous page. It takes a while to train yourself on the best way to hold the Kindle.

There are other things I could say — about DRM (unavoidable) or emailing documents to the device (clever) or the book cover (clunky) — but I want to keep this short. Despite it’s flaws, the Kindle is a good device, and it goes beyond being the first usable e-book reader to offer seamless purchasing and book delivery from Amazon’s large selection. It’s not as polished a 1.0 as the iPhone release was, but it’s a solid offering and more innovative in some ways. I’m looking forward to both reading books on it as a user and experimenting with ways to get other content on the device as a developer.