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Rolled out in 2013, the Mayday video chat feature gave Fire tablet users access to a live rep on screen who could control and annotate the screen for assistance. (Amazon Photo)

Amazon is pulling the plug on its Mayday video calling feature for on-screen customer support on its Fire tablets, ending a service that was personally unveiled by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos nearly five years ago.

“The Mayday video calling service will be discontinued in June 2018,” the company says on a customer support page spotted by GeekWire this morning. The announcement, which hasn’t been widely noticed, represents the quiet demise of a feature that the company had touted as a revolution in on-device tech support.

The updated support page notes that users will still be able to contact Amazon customer service through phone, email or chat, and the representative on the line will have the option of using Mayday screen-sharing to help with problems.

However, the signature feature of the service was the ability to press the Mayday button to summon a video chat with a customer support representative who had the ability to control the device and annotate the screen. For purposes of privacy, the company said the rep wasn’t able to see the user on the other end of the chat.

The use of live video chat with a human rep was a notable departure from the trend toward automated support, and no doubt much more costly.

In the years since the rollout of Mayday, Amazon has been investing heavily in its Alexa voice assistant, which has the ability to provide some customer support to users of the company’s Echo speakers and other devices. Alexa is also available on the company’s Fire tablets.

Jeff Bezos with the company’s Fire HDX tablets in September 2013 when Amazon introduced the Mayday customer support feature. (Amazon Photo)

Bezos originally demonstrated the Mayday video calling feature in a September 2013 briefing with reporters, saying it was an example of the benefit of Amazon working directly on hardware, operating systems, key apps, the cloud and services, and tightly integrating those features. “I very much hope you’re going to say, ‘Wow.’ And I think you will,” he said before unveiling Mayday.

“Tech support is much harder than most kinds of customer service,” Bezos said at the time. “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.”

A few months later, the company touted the fact that it had reduced the average response time to a Mayday button press to 9 seconds, beating its goal of 15 seconds. Less than a year after launch, the company said three-quarters of Fire HDX tablet owners were using the Mayday button for everything from basic tech support to advice on beating an Angry Birds level.

Amazon provided these answers to GeekWire’s questions this morning.

Why is the Mayday video calling feature being discontinued? The Mayday video calling service was offered on legacy devices that are no longer sold by Amazon.com. Customers of previous and current Fire tablets can instead reach customer service for free, 24×7 support by tapping on the Phone & Email icon, through the Quick Actions menu on their device, or via the Help App on their device home screen.

When will it be discontinued? As of June 2018, the Mayday video calling service will no longer be available.

Will the Mayday button in Fire tablets be removed via a software update? The change occurred through an automatic update to the device Settings. Customers can still access customer support by tapping on the Phone & Email icon, through the Quick Actions menu on their device, or via the Help App on their device home screen.

How will the ongoing Mayday screen sharing be accessed by customers for support? Mayday Screen Sharing will continue to be offered on supported devices via free customer support, 24×7 by tapping on the Phone & Email icon or via the Help App on their device home screen. With your permission, the Amazon customer service expert can share your screen to draw on your screen, talk you through how to do a task, or do the task for you.

This might not be how Bezos imagined Mayday turning out, but it isn’t likely to be a sore subject for the company. The Amazon CEO has spoken repeatedly about the need to take big risks and maintain a high tolerance for failure. The rollout and flameout of the company’s Fire Phone was another high-profile example.

“At Amazon, we have to grow the size of our failures as the size of our company grows,” Bezos said in October 2016. “We have to make bigger and bigger failures — otherwise none of our failures will be needle movers. It’s a very bad sign over the long run if Amazon wasn’t making larger and larger failures. If you do that all along the way, that is going to protect you from ever having to make that big hail mary bet that you sometimes see companies make right before they fail or go out of existence.”

More recently, at the company’s shareholder meeting in Seattle last month, he revisited the topic. “We can afford to do things that fail, but we can’t afford to do things that if they succeed, they’re small,” he said. “We need to do things that if they succeed can be large — and we have a number of such things underway.”

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