A few years ago Amazon was putting the finishing touches on two important pieces of hardware that came out within just a few months of each other: The Fire Phone and the Echo smart speaker. In hindsight, we know Echo has been a hit for Amazon, giving the company an early lead in voice assistants, while the Fire Phone was one of the biggest flops in company history.
In the lead up to their respective unveilings — Fire Phone in June 2014 and Echo five months later in November — both projects had detractors and supporters, said Dave Limp, Amazon’s devices chief, who worked on Kindle at the time. Speaking at the Geekwire Summit this week, Limp said he had lines of people outside his office waiting to tell him one of two things: that jumping into the already-saturated phone market didn’t make sense; or that no one would want a voice-activated cylindrical speaker.
“If you went with the skeptics, you would have canceled both projects, but the right answer is to lean into both and accept the failure and learn from it,” Limp said.
One of Amazon’s key mantras is that it is OK to fail, and the Fire Phone is perhaps the best example of that philosophy. Even though the Fire Phone didn’t live up to Amazon’s hopes, a new report details how it served as the breeding ground for Alexa and the beginning of the company’s quest to bring the digital assistant everywhere.
A central figure in the story from the New Yorker is Ian Freed, former vice president of devices for Amazon and Jeff Bezos’ former technical advisor. He detailed how Bezos saw something in a voice recognition feature embedded in an early prototype of the phone’s software that allowed users to request songs via voice commands.
A few days after the presentation of the prototype software, Bezos asked Freed to “build a cloud-based computer that responded to voice commands,” the New Yorker reports. The team grew to more than 200 people with a budget of more than $50 million, per the New Yorker, and built what would become Alexa.
The voice assistant first debuted in the Echo smart speaker in late 2014, just a few months after the Fire Phone reveal. Since then, Alexa has become a crucial area for Amazon, propelling its hardware group to new levels. Just last month, Amazon held a huge hardware event at its Seattle campus, now an annual occurrence, where it introduced a bevy of new Alexa-powered gadgets, including earbuds and glasses with the digital assistant built in.
Amazon has opened Alexa up to developers to increase its capabilities, or “skills” in company vernacular. The result: Alexa just reached a milestone of 100,000 skills last month.
As Amazon continues to grow, Limp says the company’s bets will have to get bigger to satisfy customers. There will be more failures, Limp says — some that will never see the light of day, others that have been released but could falter later.
“If everything was a success, they wouldn’t be experiments,” Limp said. “They’d be proofs — mathematically you’d know the result. And so as a company like Amazon, if we want to be a federation of builders, which is what we think we are, and we want to invent, we have to be willing to take risks.”