Category Archives: Rough Drafts

Prose that hasn’t been published elsewhere

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is looking at something pretty amazing.
Image Credit: James Duncan Davidson/Flickr

Amazon’s Fire phone — and what it means

Hello everyone!

I wrote this post about the Amazon Fire phone yesterday morning.

At the time I wrote it, I didn’t yet know what the phone was called or any of its exact details — that came later in the day, with Amazon’s official unveiling. But, thanks to excellent reporting by VB writer Mark Sullivan and solid context from the rest of the VB team, I was able to put together a pretty good picture of what it would likely mean.

What Amazon’s ‘Fire Phone’ means — and why it could be a real contender

Why does a company that started as a bookseller, evolved into an e-commerce giant, and has seen some success selling Android tablets think that it can take on the ruthless market of smartphones?

What we have, in Amazon’s Fire phone, is a first draft of a smartphone from a company that has all the advantages of an Apple or a Google — and then some.

Amazon, in my opinion, is one of the few companies with a “full stack” of technology to back up a consumer electronics business: cloud services, software, an app store, content. In addition, it has an enormously efficient retail operation and it has credit card details for millions of consumers, making its phone a powerful potential digital wallet.

What we didn’t know is the extent to which Amazon would try to use its product knowledge — via its “Firefly” image recognition feature — to insert a wedge between its customers and the retail outlets they usually frequent. Imagine standing in the aisle at Walgreens, picking up a bottle of Excedrin, and pointing your phone at it. The phone recognizes the bottle, gives you details on what it contains — perhaps more than you can easily get from the label — and offers to ship you the bottle for substantially less. Because it has text recognition capabilities, the phone knows exactly what price Walgreens is selling it for, so Amazon can always undercut that price.

So far, nobody seems excited enough about this phone to actually buy it. But this is just the first version. I will say this, I’m getting a little scared of Amazon.

I’d like to hear what you think!

Some more coverage of the Amazon Fire phone from VB’s team:

 

 

In other news, I went to Paris last week to learn about the French tech economy. (I had some pretty good meals too.) What I saw was substantially different from what I expected. Here are some of the highlights:

 

 

The surfers v. the VC

Martins Beach photo from Yelp.

Martins Beach photo from Yelp.

So I’m on jury duty this week, and as I walk out of the courthouse on our lunch recess, I happen to see an older bearded gentleman in a suit, surrounded by some other suits, holding forth to a small pack of reporters.

“Oh, a courthouse steps interview,” I thought, so I sidled up to hear what was going on.

I quickly learned that the bearded gentleman was renowned California lawyer Joe Cotchett, and that he was there representing the Surfrider Foundation in a lawsuit against venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

Khosla, you see, bought a bunch of land south of Half Moon Bay back in 2008 and promptly closed off the access road to a popular beach that ran through the land. Called Martin’s Beach, it became a rallying point for locals who had been accustomed to using that beach — via this road — for decades.

It seems that Khosla’s lawyers had resisted bringing Khosla himself into court, but this morning, the judge ruled that he would have to appear, which was the occasion of Cotchett’s impromptu press conference. I hung around, pulled out a notebook, and got a few words with both Cotchett and former U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey, himself a partner in Cotchett’s firm. I also heard them tell the story of how the firm sent McCloskey down to Martin’s Beach to jump the gate and trespass on Khosla’s land, which he did — though the sheriffs declined to arrest him for that, much as I’m sure the lawyers would have loved that.

So I banged out a couple hundred words after lunch, and filed my quick little story before going back into my (totally unrelated) trial.

All in all, it was a pretty classic moment in courthouse reporting, and almost made me wish I was on that beat.

Here’s my story, for what it’s worth:

Surfers to VC Vinod Khosla: We’ll see you in court

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning,” said Mark Twain.

An editor’s job, at its best, is about turning lightning bugs into lightning.

The future of education: Tablets, or hands-on?

Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell with an interactive game.

Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell with an interactive game.

I read the Times story on Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s 650-person startup aimed at reinventing education via tablet games, with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, as I wrote in a piece today on VentureBeat, this is exactly the vision — shared by One Laptop per Child — first outlined in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age.” A self-guided curriculum, embedded in a digital book, that could teach children everything they need to know via engaging songs, games, and interactive projects.

Screenshot from an Amplify video.

Screenshot from an Amplify video.

On the other hand, like the Times writer, I have an urge to yell at the tablet-focused kids in the book: Go outside! Climb a tree! And in fact I probably do yell that at my own children, from time to time, when they are on the verge of disappearing into a screen-centric vortex of digital media.

But then it occurred to me that an interactive tablet is perhaps not the best way to use technology to engage children. It’s certainly not the only way.

Earlier this year, I visited the studios of Two Bit Circus, an exciting experiment in “STEAM” education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics — the A is an addition that makes the acronym much more interesting, and inclusive, than the usual STEM). I wrote about Two Bit Circus and their STEAM Carnival project when it was just getting started on Kickstarter. The project achieved its funding goals, and the team has been busy putting together their act since then.

The project, in a nutshell, is to create a traveling “carnival” that would amaze children with steampunk- and Maker Faire-like circus attractions. Instead of slamming a hammer down to make a pellet ring a bell, the hammer would make an electrical arc rise up on a Jacob’s Ladder. Instead of a 3-ring circus with lions and clowns, the circus would offer the chance for kids to pit robots they’ve made against one another.

The Steam Carnival approach to educational technology is to make kids understand that tech is something they can build, not just something they use. I like that approach, and I think it’s increasingly important.

In other words, don’t just go outside and climb a tree. After you come down from that tree, figure out how to make a robot, a computer program, a musical score, or a digital video that you can show others. Put it together, wire it up, program it, direct it, edit it.

The tablet should be a tool for engaging creativity, not just a game that helps kids learn rote lessons mapped out by their state board of education. There’s room for both, I think. But the vision is not fully realized unless children are hacking into their tablets and writing their own software for it.

Or using their tablets to control battlebots.