Amazon: The Scaling Company

I’m an Amazon fanboy.

Whenever I find something I might want to buy, I park in on one of my many Amazon wish lists. I use their Web services both personally and professionally. And I’ve owned a Kindle for years; it’s the only eReader I’ll use.

But I’m frustrated with Amazon as they’re missing a golden opportunity with the Kindle.

Part of the reason is that Amazon is hard to pin down as a company. Most people think they’re for shopping; more sophisticated pundits think of them as the “platform for buying anything.” But then how does that explain their web services? The tablet?

I like to think of them as a scaling company. They started by scaling retail. Before Amazon, if you wanted to buy most things, you went to a store and bought what was available; some folks skipped the store visit and bought from the limited set of items available in a catalogue.

Post-Amazon, we expect to be able to buy anything across any category and have it fulfilled by Amazon. With the legendary Long Tail, Amazon scaled retail.

Enter their Web services. Having built an incredible set of online services for internal use – and enabling themselves to scale quickly – Amazon realized that they could sell these same services externally and help others scale. Now there’s not a single startup that doesn’t use Amazon’s web services for elastic storage and computing; why would you waste time building your own cloud when you can use Amazon’s? You would be wasting time that could otherwise be focused on growing your business; Amazon helps your company scale.

Which brings is to the Kindle. How does the Kindle reader and the Fire tablet fit in?

A cursory analysis would suggest that they don’t: they’re just trying to fight the iPad and maybe scale the number of books you can read. But that doesn’t sound like a compelling narrative.

What I hope that Amazon will do is use the Kindle to scale me.


One of the biggest problems of this age is information overload. Imagine if the Kindle became the platform to manage this and therefore to help you basically scale your brain.

Here’s how it might work.

Every time you read an ebook you highlight the passages you like and see those others like. You can do this today.

Now imagine that this all lives in a website matched to your profile.

From this website (or an associated app) you can upload a PDF and its converted into an ebook-style form that you can highlight; popular passages by others are automatically highlighted as well.

Now Amazon builds a web browser that lets you bookmark web pages and clip/highlight sections and store them in this new “Kindle Brain” (they’ve already built a browser…).

Throw in the ability to add notes and make everything searchable (notes, clippings and files) and you’ve got something interesting. You’re starting to scale my brain.

But to really scale my brain, Amazon would use their awesome recommendation technology on top of all this. Every item in my Kindle Brain would contain related items that I’d saved, that others had saved and related products from Amazon’s database. I can now start to see the web that connects everything I ever learned; patterns I would otherwise miss become obvious.

Now take it even further. Amazon has built an incredible database of my interests. Every day it goes out and summarizes everything I should read, all the time suggesting related products. And then they write their own search engine so that every time I search for something, it searches both the web and my Kindle Brain.

Far-fetched? A bit. Completely unreasonable? No.

Come on Amazon, blow my mind.

The Modern Arabic Novel

Back in January, the New Yorker had a great article reviewing the state of the modern Arabic novel.  It’s worth reading as, I’m guessing that, like me, you know absolutely nothing about Arabic novels – and there’s a lot to know (and a lot of it is very subtle).

If you want to skip the article, I created an Amazon Wishlist where you can see all the books.  As  I was building the wishlist, I noticed an interesting phenomena.  These books are almost always bought together.  Take a look at the screenshot below.  All seven of those books are in the list:

I wonder if these were always bought together or if the New Yorker article caused them to be clustered together.  Ah, the magic of Amazon and collaborative filtering…

Don’t Expect To See Me Out Too Much

So the other weekend I cashed in all my loose change.  I had three coffee containers full – which ended up working out to be a little over $300!  I used a coin sorting machine that gave me an Amazon gift certificate, and that’s now led to the following:

That’s 17 books so I think I’m good from now to the end of the year (if only because I’ll be trying to figure out how any publisher can make money when I can get this many books delivered to me via UPS for so little).

In case you’re looking for a book to read, here’s what’s on the list (from top to bottom):

The Soul of a New MachineTracy Kidder

Divided KingdomRupert Thomson

No Longer HumanOsamu Dazai

Life and FateVassily Grossman

Perdido Street StationChina Mieville

Demonic MalesWrangham & Peterson

All God’s ChildrenFox Butterfield

Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases – Kahneman, Slovic & Tversky

The Machine that Changed the WorldWomack, Jones & Roos

Empires of LightJill Jonnes

The Rings of SaturnW.G. Sebald

RESTful Web Services  –  Richardson & Ruby

The Forever WarDexter Filkins

Right Hand Left HandChris McManus

The BoxMarc Levinson

Empire CityJackson & Dunbar

On a related note, this shopping experience completely confirmed why Amazon is the platform for buying things.  Every single one of these books was part of my wishlist (some for a few years).  Amazon never asked me to update my wishlist, rather just kept it there for the day when I was finally ready.

Also, now that I’ve bought the books they don’t appear in my wishlist and if I go to the page for any of the books there’s a gentle reminder that I’ve already bought it:

If that’s not the ultimate retail experience, then I don’t know what is.