For one, the company laid the groundwork to expand further outside of its native Seattle. After years of development, this year saw the launch of Amazon Go, a grocery/convenience store hybrid that allows customers to waltz in off the street, grab goods off shelves and walk right back out without missing a beat (or talking to another person, for that matter).
Anti-social Seattleites have been able to walk into the Amazon Go store for hassle-free groceries since January, and the company has been pushing the concept with surprising enthusiasm ever since. Two more cashier-free stores went live in Seattle, and another two celebrated their grand openings in San Francisco once Fall arrived. And before you assume that Amazon only plans to bring these outposts to major tech hubs, Chicago — that crown jewel of the Midwest — now has three Amazon Go stores that launched within mere months of each other.
All told, we're looking at eight Amazon Go store launches in a single year — make that nine if you count the extra Seattle location that isn't open to the public. For a company that makes the vast majority of its fortunes from people clicking around in web browsers, that real-world progress can seem almost astonishing. And remember, Amazon isn't done just yet: A Bloomberg report from September claimed Amazon is thinking about opening up to 3,000 of these grab-and-go stores by 2021.
That's right, three thousand. To put that in perspective, Amazon's 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods put Bezos in charge of a relatively paltry 479 stores. The company has never officially commented on the report, but look at it this way: as I write this, there are just under 8,000 7-Elevens in the United States. It's not hard to imagine convenience stores as a whole getting totally screwed. If Amazon really wanted to, it could rewrite the way this country does its shopping. Again.
And then there's Alexa, Amazon's virtual assistant/shopping concierge/in-home DJ. When the original Echo debuted in 2015, reviewers seemed simultaneously wary of and charmed by Amazon's chatty interface. Since then, we've seen plenty of Alexa-powered gadgets hit store shelves, but this year Amazon went a little crazy and churned out a bunch of new physical Alexa avatars all at once. You know, because two or three simply wouldn't have been enough.
Some updates we saw coming, like the refreshed Echo Plus and the updated Echo Dot: a rounder, friendlier-looking sequel to what Amazon claims is the "best selling speaker ever." Other devices, like the Echo Input, were purely pragmatic responses to rivals like Google's Chromecast Audio.
Other products, though, spoke to the widening scope of Amazon's home invasion. The Echo Sub was a peculiar attempt to give Amazon-focused speaker systems a little more bass, because listening to a new album through a cutesy cylinder was never all that great. The Echo Link promised to bring Alexa — along with high-quality audio — to existing amplifiers, while Amazon elaborated on how its full-blown, 60W, two-channel Echo Link Amplifier will slot into sound systems next year. And then came the truly oddball stuff. Does anyone really need a wall clock that displays timers Alexa has set? Or for that matter, a cheap, otherwise rudimentary microwave that re-orders popcorn on command?
In a word: No. Still, these unabashedly goofy products have helped reveal Amazon's real desires. Alexa isn't just an assistant that lives on a kitchen counter any more; it's meant to be woven deeply into the fabric of your home life. While Alexa does just fine confined to one device, it becomes more valuable as it worms its way into others.
Alexa is customer service and marketing, commerce and convenience, all tangled up in a nice voice.
Alexa's march doesn't just stop at home, either. Also announced at that fall hardware event was an Alexa dongle that connects to your car stereo so the assistant's soothing voice can offer turn-by-turn directions. It's a neat little aftermarket solution for making cars a little smarter, but let's not forget that automakers like Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota, Audi and more have already pledged to work Alexa into their cars' infotainment systems. And while Alexa doesn't enjoy the same sort of seamless integration that Google Assistant has on Android phones, Amazon's Mobile Accessory kit (announced this year) makes it easier for product developers to squeeze Alexa into their wearables and Bluetooth headsets.
Hell, we're even starting to see Alexa integrate deep with hotels: in June, Amazon announced a partnership with Marriott that would allow for hotel-specific Alexa commands so visitors could ask it for spa appointments or directions to the gym. Alexa is no stranger to hotels, sure, but these sorts of bespoke travel experiences are new for Amazon. More importantly, they serve two crucial purposes. First, they make it easier for customers accustomed to Alexa to actually get things done, and second, they give people unfamiliar with Alexa a taste of what the assistant is capable. It's customer service and marketing, commerce and convenience, all tangled up in a nice voice.