Maybe Amazon Has No Master Plan

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What if America’s most successful companies sometimes have no clue?

Recent articles on Amazon projects in food and household robots show that even America’s most ambitious company can fumble. In one case, more details about the company’s supermarket chain emerged – not Whole Foods, but in another – showing that Amazon still hasn’t figured out how to sell us milk and fries. The company also has a team of 800 people working on an Echo speaker on wheels.

Never underestimate Amazon. Nor should we assume that the hugely successful tech giants have found it all out. Sometimes these companies just throw spaghetti on the wall.

Facebook’s efforts to make WhatsApp the default method for customer interactions with companies may not be as great as the company’s only good option. When Amazon made a splash a few years ago with the promise to redefine American health care, maybe it had no real clue. When Google, Facebook and SpaceX say they are giving more people access to the internet with balloons, drones or satellites, they have not necessarily mastered a complex challenge.

Many of these are worthwhile efforts. We should all believe in the power of innovation to solve problems. However, neither should the public and policy makers place too much trust in the sometimes expensive, real-world market research carried out by giant companies.

Let me come back to one of Amazon’s most famous grocery projects. To sum up the company’s last 15 years, Amazon ran a grocery delivery service for a decade with little success. Then, nearly four years ago, the Whole Foods chain bought it from 500 grocery stores for more than $ 13 billion. That wasn’t a blast. Now Amazon is building another chain from the ground up with what Bloomberg News describes as being somewhere between Trader Joe’s and larger supermarkets.

The optimistic view of Amazon’s meander is only the first step in the company’s master plan. May be!

There has been news that Amazon dreams of highly automated stores and plans to eliminate cash registers in many places. Perhaps Amazon would like to use its grocery outposts as prep centers for the delivery of fresh fish and dish soap.

I’m excited to see the big ideas from Amazon. But there hasn’t been any evidence of Amazon’s great theory about food or the ability to turn imagination into reality for 15 years. Meanwhile, some companies in China are cleverly combining the best of in-store shopping with delivery. Britain’s Ocado and Market Kurly in South Korea are tackling inefficiencies when it comes to getting food to people’s doors. The best food ideas don’t come from Amazon.

Here I add that it is possible that I look like an idiot when I write this. Food, household robots, pharmaceuticals, and health insurance are areas worth innovating. It’s just helpful to think of Amazon’s efforts as experiments – sometimes bad ones – rather than fully baked wonders of creation.

Most of the time, I worry that we’re putting too much faith in what low-stakes tech giants have to deal with, but high-stakes issues for the rest of us. It doesn’t help if some policymakers hold back transit projects to see if driverless cars could be the answer to transportation nightmares. (You will not.)

I write a lot about the power of big tech companies and the damage it can do. But believing that tech superpowers have it all figured out can also be harmful.

Do you know what’s not great? The Australians are stuck in the middle of a business deal between Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg.

Do you remember a month ago – I know these days it feels like time doesn’t matter – when Facebook blocked all messages from the app in Australia? This came after a new law in the country required Google and Facebook to pay news organizations for links to their articles.

The law can be wrong or wise. I dont know. Google and Facebook certainly didn’t like it – but at least initially they took opposing approaches.

Google decided to grit its teeth and sign contracts to pay several news organizations, including News Corp, which Murdoch owns. Facebook’s response was to stir up rioting, criticize the law and prevent people and news organizations from sharing or viewing news links on its app in Australia. (Facebook later temporarily lifted the news blackout.)

Then on Monday, Facebook pretty much did what Google did a month ago: it signed a contract to pay for material from Murdoch’s company. Perhaps this fight, which was supposedly for the public good, was really just a fight between billionaires?

I do not want to allow the rather meh conclusion to obscure the important underlying issues. Google and Facebook devour a significant portion of the advertising sold worldwide. This makes life harder for news organizations and other companies that support themselves with advertising.

Many people and government officials are trying to figure out what, if anything, should be done about it. US lawmakers are debating a bill that would allow smaller news organizations to bargain collectively with Facebook and Google – just like in Australia. (It’s also no different from a proposal I wrote about in 2009.)

Whether these are wise moves, or whether news organizations deserve special help at all, is a worthy debate. Unfortunately, in Australia, the important issues have been mixed up by wealthy corporations battling for power and money.

  • A secret work settlement, relevant again: After a controversial attempt to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in east-central Virginia, the company made a 22-point pledge that it would not take revenge on people who would support a union in the future. My colleague David Streitfeld talks about this formerly secret agreement with federal regulators and how important it is to the company’s current labor unrest.

  • Hack all of your text messages for $ 16: A Vice News reporter found several hackers able to redirect all of his text messages and use the access to break into his online accounts. It’s a scary story that shows a lack of accountability in the sprawling mess of our SMS system.

  • Streaming has helped change the way music sounds: In the Times Opinion section, Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding explain how the pop music structure of verse and chorus began to change due to several factors, including a desire to create songs that would appeal to people on Spotify or TikTok.

Comedian and actress Tiffany Haddish found out she won a Grammy Award while recording a children’s television show. Watch how she and the children are absolutely delighted with this news.

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