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Delivery logistics and the Alexa-powered family of devices are key to Amazon’s future. (Amazon Photo)

Amazon has evolved constantly throughout its more than 20-year life span, first as a book seller, than an e-commerce giant, and now a cloud computing powerhouse. And it appears Amazon’s next big pushes are coming in the fields of artificial intelligence and logistics, according to a new report.

The company often talks about the pillars of its business: its retail marketplace, Amazon Prime, Amazon Web Services. Many have speculated about the company’s fourth pillar, and artificial intelligence, led by Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa seems like as good a bet as any. Logistics underpin many of Amazon’s efforts, and a series of creative delivery methods have also become a signature element of the company.

The report from CB Insights notes that Amazon has experienced a couple big hardware misses, specifically the Fire phone, but it has also hit on several occasions. There has been perhaps no bigger hit than the Alexa-powered family of smart speakers.

CB Insights points to data that says Amazon is selling Alexa devices, like the Amazon Echo, at a loss. But it has become the earlier leader in the digital assistant race, partially thanks to opening up Alexa to developers in 2015 and encouraging them to build skills. Alexa now has more than 10,000 skills, and Amazon just opened the technology behind the Alexa far-field microphone and voice processing to let third party hardware makers to build Alexa-powered devices.

“Subsidizing its Alexa-powered hardware is a clear path to ascendancy within consumer and developer circles, and Amazon has conveyed it has no desire to make its bet solely on hardware,” according to the report. “Instead, the end goal is to be the cloud-based voice software powering everything from car dashboards to consumer wearables.”

The report notes that while Alexa may be the future, online retail is still at the center of the Amazon universe. It brings in more revenue than any other service, followed by its third-party sellers Marketplace and Amazon Prime subscriptions.

Amazon drone with Bloe Origin spaceship at MARS 2017
Amazon’s delivery drone flies in California skies with Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship in the background. (Amazon via Ben Fox Rubin / YouTube)

Amazon’s big push in recent years to speed up delivery by building out a logistics network is meant to further strengthen its hold on the online retail throne. Amazon has continued to build warehouses throughout the U.S., and the report cites a Wall Street Journal statistic saying 44 percent of people in the U.S. now live within 20 miles of an Amazon warehouse, compared to just 5 percent in 2015.

And it’s not just warehouses. Amazon is leasing airplanes to build out a fleet of delivery jets. And then of course, there is the company’s well-known drone delivery push.

These efforts can be shown in the type of technologies Amazon has patented or is working to patent. According to the report, Amazon in 2009, filed for only 248 patents, and in 2013 that number climbed to well above 1,100. But that’s still way less than some of its fellow tech giants, like Google, which filed for about three times as many patents as Amazon during that time frame.

Though big chunks of patent data can take years to be released publicly, the report looks shows that much of Amazon’s patent activity in 2016 focused on its logistics network, as well as cloud computing. From available data, CB Insights found Amazon has applied for 78 logistics-oriented patents in 2016, well above the number in past years.

Many of these patents are futuristic in nature, and it’s unclear how many will turn into actual uses. Amazon has sought to patent such ideas as an airborne distribution network that launches drone from above, underwater warehouses, and drones that link up to become one giant drone.

Hiring is also another key metric that gives a look at Amazon’s current and future directions. The report notes that Amazon Web Services is hiring more than any other department, with about 5,600 open jobs, representing almost a third of all available Amazon positions. But the Alexa team has about 890 openings, according to the report, or about 5 percent of all open positions.

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