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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos can hardly wait to demo this feature. Sitting in a conference room in the middle of the company’s Seattle campus this week, he gestures to a diagram that he drew on the white board at the outset of the meeting. The white board notes Amazon’s “deep integration through the entire stack” — its work across hardware, operating systems, key apps, the cloud and services.

KindleFireHDXMayday“I’m going to show you a feature now which would just simply be completely impossible if you couldn’t integrate across all of these layers of the stack,” Bezos says.

“I very much hope you’re going to say, ‘Wow.’ And I think you will.”

He picks up one of the company’s new Kindle Fire HDX tablets, swipes to access the Quick Settings menu, and presses a new button called “Mayday.” After a few seconds, a small video box appears on screen, showing a live tech support rep on the other end.

“I see you’ve found the Mayday button,” says the person on the screen. “I’ll be your tech adviser, Dylan.”

During the demo that follows, the tech support rep shows Bezos and a small audience of reporters how to navigate the tablet to download a game and change basic settings. The rep can draw circles and arrows on the screen to point out features. He actually takes control of the tablet at one point. The support rep can hear the user’s questions and see the tablet screen but, to preserve privacy, can’t actually see the user.

KindleFireHDXVerticalAngleLeftWhen the video box blocks an important feature on screen, Dylan can literally move himself out of the way.

“Tech support is much harder than most kinds of customer service,” explains Bezos after saying goodbye to Dylan. “In the early 21st Century, our devices have gotten sophisticated enough, we’re not always sure, ‘Am I controlling the device or is the device controlling me?’ So we’re hopeful that Mayday will be a much-loved feature. And there’s no way you can do a feature like this unless you’re operating in all of these layers.”

The free service is one of the new features that will debut with the release of the company’s new Kindle Fire HDX, an upgraded tablet lineup that Amazon is revealing publicly for the first time tonight. Bezos & Co., preparing for their third holiday season in the tablet market, are rolling out the new devices to go head-to-head with Apple’s iPad, Android-based tablets and others, including Microsoft’s newly revamped Surface lineup.

The new 7- and 8.9-inch Kindle HDX tablets come with vivid screens that Amazon touts as “beyond HD.” They offer with an updated operating system, 11 hours of battery life, and new features including the ability to use the tablet as a second screen for controlling and augmenting videos on the television screen. [See related story.] 

With new Snapdragon 800 processors, they’re faster and more powerful than their predecessors.

And in a surprise twist, they’re also more expensive — starting at $229 for the 7-inch version and $379 for the 8.9-inch. (The original Kindle Fire HDs started at $199 and $299.)

“Break-even,” explains Bezos when I ask about the higher prices. “We’re packing as much hardware into those price points as we can. You look at the processor, the RAM, everything that’s going into those devices, they are premium products at non-premium prices, and the only way it’s possible is because we’re not building any profit margin into them at all.”

However, the company will also be offering a new version of its original Kindle Fire HD for $139, touting it as a “breakthrough” price for a tablet.

tabletsBezos is quick to point out that Amazon has been in the tablet market for a mere 24 months. But one of Amazon’s challenges so far has been extreme seasonality. Business Insider, the news site in which Bezos has since become an investor, last year called the Kindle Fire the “fruitcake of tablets” — a device that’s given as a gift during the holidays, because of its low price, but experiences lower demand than its rivals during the rest of the year.

As one sign of this phenomenon, the Kindle Fire dropped completely out of the top 5 in IDC’s global ranking of tablets in the second quarter.

“We do have a very healthy business come the holidays. There’s no doubt about that,” Bezos says. However, he adds, “The third-party data that I see says that our tablets are the most used. After people buy them, they actually use them.”

That illustrates what Bezos has called the “Amazon doctrine.” He reiterated that doctrine on the white board during the briefing this week: “Make money when people use our devices not when they buy our devices,” he scribbled.

“It’s very early days in the tablet arena,” says Bezos when asked to assess Amazon’s position in the tablet market. “If it’s horses running, we haven’t even come around the first bend. It’s early. The second thing is, it’s a big arena, and there’s room for lots of winners. The third thing is, we are taking — as we always endeavor to do — our own unique approach on things.”

Exhibit A: the “Mayday” button linking Kindle Fire HDX users to live, on-screen tech support. The company says the service will be available year-round, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. The company’s response-time goal is 15 seconds or less. It will only be available to Kindle Fire HDX users, not on older versions of the company’s tablets.

“If you think about Amazon’s history, we marry together high-tech and heavy lifting,” Bezos says. “And Mayday is another example of marrying together high-tech and heavy lifting.”

The 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX ships on Oct. 18, and the 8.9-inch version ships on Nov. 7.

(Photos via

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