Thursday, December 06, 2007

Reading Amazon's Tea-leaves: a fool's errand

Michael Cairns posted an insightful piece this morning that really humbled me. In his opening paragraph he talks about an audience he had with Jeff Bezos in 1998, and how wrong he was at the time about trying to project where Amazon was going.

This reminded me of a similar experience I had with Mr. Bezos. It must also have been in early 1998. Jeff Bezos was the keynote speaker at a publishing conference hosted by the University of Virginia, held at the Library of Congress. At a cocktail reception after his keynote, I actually had a one-on-one conversation with him for about 10 minutes, until the host ushered me away. At that meeting I gave him my original business plan for eloquence.

About 2 months later at BEA, several people from Amazon descended on our small booth, and demanded a meeting. Now remember, this is pre-ONIX, pre-everything related to bibliographic metadata. When I arrived at their booth for the meeting, they produced the business plan that I had given to Jeff a couple of months earlier. It was highlighted and underlined, and obviously well read - by somebody.

In the meeting, however, they only wanted to talk about one thing. About 10 pages into the document I wrote about the collection and dissemination of rights information. That paragraph was circled, highlighted, and starred. They wanted to know how I could do it. Whatever my answer was, I don't remember, but it was obviously not compelling enough for them to continue the meeting. They ushered me out, and that was the last I heard from them.

What I was left with was a strong sense that Amazon was not going to be what it appeared to be. They were looking way beyond where they were. In 1998, they were a small, US only, website for books. They knew then that they had to try and tackle the issue of rights one way or another to be the international power that they are today.

Michael's story was further corroborated today by a couple of other interesting items that came to my attention today. Unfortunately, due to confidentiality, I can't share them here. Suffice it to say one had to do with asking publishers for a specific type of content, and the other had to do with Amazon's use of the EVDO platform for purposes other than downloading content.

I guess the bottom line for me is that we are all wasting our time trying to figure out what Amazon's next move is. There are many very smart people there, and they are thinking two or three moves ahead all the time. In this age of 'now', it seems difficult to get our heads around the notion that a company is thinking and acting in a long term way. Clearly, if the past is any teacher, Amazon's Kindle launch is just a baby step in a much larger plan, that will be revealed when they want us to know it.

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