If Amazon existed in the 1980s

Activate your willing suspension of disbelief because Squirrel Monkey's back with Wonders of the World Wide Web. In this episode, they envision Amazon, "the department store of the future," as a virtual department store in the eighties. It's not historically accurate by any means, but that's part of what makes it so fun to watch.

Previously: If Siri existed in the 1980s

Now you can buy a laptop with Alexa preinstalled

It was just matter of time, really. Amazon’s push to get its smart assistant on every piece of hardware imaginable now includes Windows 10 laptops, starting with Acer’s Spin 3 and 5 lines. Both include models sporting Alexa, currently available at retail.

Acer looks to be all in with the assistant — Alexa is coming to a number of other PCs from the company, including the Nitro 5 Spin gaming laptop and its all-one-ones, in the coming weeks. Beyond that, the company’s also bring Alexa to a number of existing systems courtesy of a software update, arriving later this week.

In a press release, Alexa VP Steve Rabichin says the company is “delighted” to be working with Acer. Well, yeah. The PC space was a pretty clear next step for Amazon, having already established a strong foothold in the smarthome space and slowly attacking the mobile market through third-party partnerships.

The company will, of course, be competing directly with Cortana. Microsoft’s assistant has attempted to establish Windows 10 as its primary stronghold. Apple, of course, brought Siri to MacOS some time back, while Google has been flirting with the form factor on its own devices like the Pixelbook.

From the sound of it, basic functionality doesn’t stray to far from what you’re already getting on the Echo, including things like the weather and smarthome control. In order to really assert its presence, however, Alexa is going to have offer some unique functionality that makes the laptops more than just an auxiliary smart speaker.

Trump reportedly pushed USPS to double Amazon’s shipping rates

According to new reporting from The Washington Post, President Trump personally pushed United States Postal Service head Megan Brennan to jack up shipping prices on Amazon and other firms.

The story comes from unnamed sources, who suggest that, thus far, the postmaster general has held out against pressure from the president. If enacted, the new pricing structure would likely cost the online retailer and others billions. 

Amazon has been in Trump’s crosshairs from some time, of course. In late March, he took to Twitter to personally call out a “scam” he believed was costing the USPS “billions,” writing, “If the P.O. ‘increased its parcel rates, Amazon’s shipping costs would rise by $2.6 Billion.’ This Post Office scam must stop. Amazon must pay real costs (and taxes) now!”

Brennan has reportedly pushed back on the notion that deals with companies like Amazon have been a bad deal for the postal service, offering evidence of the upsides of such partnerships in meetings with the president. She has also noted that such multiyear contracts wouldn’t be easy to break.

But Trump’s criticism of Amazon clearly has a personal element. Here’s a nice compendium of the many times he’s gone after the company and its owner Jeff Bezos on Twitter — at least through late-March. The criticism really started to hit its stride around 2015. Bezos, of course, also own The Washington Post, a paper Trump has regularly called out for reporting “fake news.” 

Further clouding all of this is the fact that the USPS hasn’t released the specifics of its pricing deals with Amazon, for fear of given competing delivery services “an unfair advantage.” It has, however, insisted that it’s made money on its deals with Amazon, in spite of the fact that the service reported a $2.7 billion loss in 2017.

AWS adds more EC2 instance types with local NVMe storage

AWS is adding a new kind of virtual machine to its growing list of EC2 options. These new machines feature local NVMe storage, which offers significantly faster throughput than standard SSDs.

These new so-called C5d instances join the existing lineup of compute-optimized C5 instances the service already offered. AWS cites high-performance computing workloads, real-time analytics, multiplayer gaming and video encoding as potential use cases for its regular C5 machines and with the addition of this faster storage option, chances are users who switch will see even better performance.

Since the local storage is attached to the machine, it’ll also be terminated when the instance is stopped, so this is meant for storing intermediate files, not long-term storage.

Both C5 and C5d instances share the same underlying platform, with 3.0 GHz Intel Xeon Platinum 8000 processors.

The new instances are now available in a number of AWS’s U.S. regions, as well as in the service’s Canada regions. Prices are, unsurprisingly a bit higher than for regular C5 machines, starting at $0.096 per hour for the most basic machine with 4 in AWS’s Oregon region, for example. Regular C5 machines start at $0.085 per hour.

It’s worth noting that the EC2 F1 instances, which offer access to FPGAs, also use NVMe storage. Those are highly specialized machines, though, while the C5 instances are interesting to a far wider audience of developers.

On top of the NVMe announcement, AWS today also noted that its EC2 Bare Metal Instances are now generally available. These machines provide direct access to all the features of the underlying hardware, making them ideal for running applications that simply can’t run on virtualized hardware and for running secured container clusters. These bare metal instances also offer support for NVMe storage.

Amazon picks up Nazi-hunting series produced by Jordan Peele

Amazon has given a 10-episode, straight-to-series order to The Hunt, a show created by David Weil and executive produced by Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele.

The series follows a group of Nazi hunters living in New York City in 1977, who discover a broader Nazi conspiracy. As with other contemporary stories about fighting Nazis, I’m sure this will have absolutely no resonance with our current politics and culture.

Amazon is already the home of The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel in which the Nazis won World War II.

Deadline reports that Sonar Entertainment (which is producing the series with Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions) was in talks with another network before Amazon jumped in.

This is Amazon’s first series pickup since hiring NBC executive Jennifer Salke to take over Amazon Studios in February, following the departure of Roy Price amidst sexual harassment allegations. It also comes after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has reportedly pushed the studio to focus on bigger, more mainstream shows.

Peele, meanwhile, who recently won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for writing Get Out, has a new movie in the works and is also producing Lovecraft Country for HBO.

“When David Weil first shared The Hunt with me, I immediately knew that we had to be involved,” Peele said in a statement. “It’s cathartic. It’s noir. It’s frighteningly relevant. It’s exactly what I want to see on television. I am thrilled to be working with Amazon in bringing this incredible vision to the world.”

Food delivery’s untapped opportunity

Investors may have already placed their orders in the consumer food delivery space, but there’s still a missing recipe for solving the over $250 billion business-to-business foodservice distribution problem that’s begging for venture firms to put more cooks in the kitchen. 

Stock prices for Sysco and US Foods, the two largest food distributors, are up by over 20% since last summer when Amazon bought Whole Foods. But, these companies haven’t made any material changes to their business model to counteract the threat of Amazon. I know a thing or two about the food services industry and the need for a B2B marketplace in an industry ripe with all of our favorite buzz words: fragmentation, last mile logistics and a lack of pricing transparency.

The business-to-business food problem

Consumers have it good. Services such as Amazon and Instacart are pushing for our business and attention and thus making it great for the end users. By comparison, food and ingredient delivery for businesses is vastly underserved. The business of foodservice distribution hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention – or capital – as consumer delivery, and the industry is further behind when it comes to serving customers. Food-preparation facilities often face a number of difficulties getting the ingredients to cook the food we all enjoy.

Who are these food-preparation facilities? They range from your local restaurants, hotels, school and business cafeterias, catering companies, and many other facilities that supply to grocery markets, food trucks and so on. This market is gigantic. Ignoring all other facilities, just U.S. restaurants alone earn about $800 billion in annual sales. That’s based on research by the National Restaurant Association (the “other NRA”). Specific to foodservice distribution in the U.S., the estimated 2016 annual sales were a sizable $280 billion.

How it works today

Every one of these food-preparation facilities relies on a number of relationships with distributors (and sometimes, but rarely, directly from farms) to get their necessary ingredients. Some major national players including Sysco and US Foods mainly supply “dry goods.” For fresh meats, seafood and produce plus other artisanal goods, these facilities rely on a large number of local wholesale distributors. A few examples of wholesalers and distributors near where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area are ABS Seafood, Golden Gate Meat Company, Green Leaf, Hodo Soy and VegiWorks.

Keep in mind that the vast majority of these food-prep businesses don’t shop for ingredients the way you and I may shop for ingredients from our local supermarkets or farmer markets. There’s too little margin in food and doing so would be too costly, as well as highly inefficient (e.g., having to pay to send staff out “grocery shopping”). A few small operators do buy ingredients from wholesale chains such as Costco or Restaurant Depot. But in general, it’s way more efficient to place an order with a distributor and get the goods delivered directly to your food-prep facility.

But that’s where the problems lie. These distributors are completely fragmented, and the quality of fresh ingredients varies meaningfully from one distributor to the next. Prices fluctuate constantly, typically on a weekly basis. What’s worse is delivery timeliness, or rather the lack thereof. These distributors each employs their own delivery staff and refrigerated trucks. There is a limited number of 6 am deliveries they can make for a given delivery fleet.

As a food business operator, you may be ordering quality ingredients at the right price, but if the delivery doesn’t show up on time, you’re outta luck. You won’t be able to prepare the food in time, all the while paying for staff who are sitting around and waiting for ingredients to arrive.

As a result, you keep getting seemingly random offline pitches with promotions and price breaks from these distributors. But there’s no way to ensure timely delivery. Everybody makes verbal promises and it’s all based on who you know. Things may work for a week or two until you get “deprioritized” by one of the distributors and you have to start the process of finding the next one.

You intentionally rotate among the different distributors, just to keep them “on their toes.”

The opportunity for a food distribution platform

What’s missing is a platform that hosts a catalog of products from these distributors, with updatable availability, pricing and inventory. On it, food businesses could browse for products and place orders. Fulfillment can be done by the distributors at the beginning, but ultimately that operation may need to be done by the platform to maintain consistent quality of service. Reliable fulfillment may end up being the biggest differentiator for such a platform.

I’m aware of startups that have tried to become the dominant B2B platform for food service distribution. But it takes meaningful resources to get to critical mass and these startups tend to flame out before reaching that point. It’s not necessarily their fault for not being effective.

This industry has low margins, is slow to adopt new technologies and has many incumbent players. But the opportunity to design and execute on this platform is significant, with clear ROI as a reward and a built-in moat once it reaches critical mass.

Food-prep businesses are hungry for a better solution. And as any food entrepreneur knows, hungry customers are the best kind.

Alexa developers get 8 free voices to use in skills, courtesy of Amazon Polly

Now Alexa’s voice apps don’t have to sound like Alexa. Amazon today is offering a way for developers to give their voice apps a unique character with the launch of eight free voices to use in skills, courtesy of the Amazon Polly service. The voices are only available in U.S. English, and include a mix of both male and female, according to Amazon Polly’s website.

Amazon Polly was first introduced at Amazon’s re:Invent developer event in November 2016, and has been steadily ramping up its capabilities in the time since. The text-to-speech service today is capable of things like whispering, speech marks, using a timbre effect, and dynamic range compression – all which make the voices sound more natural.

While the speech engine today supports a couple dozen languages, only the U.S. English voices are being offered to Alexa developers at this time.

But their addition could make some of Alexa’s skills more engaging – especially those involving different characters, like an adventure story or game, for example.

Developers today may already be using multiple voices in their skills, but the process of doing so is more cumbersome and rigid, as with mp3 file uploads.

To use an Amazon Polly voice instead, developers would use Structured Speech Markup Language (SSML) and then specify which voice they want with the “voice name” tag. This makes it easier to adjust what is said, as developers could just change the text instead of having to re-record an mp3.

Amazon has been working to make Polly more accessible to a wider audience, recently by offering a WordPress plugin that could turn your posts into podcasts.

The new Alexa skills integration, meanwhile, gives Polly another avenue of reaching consumers. It’s also another means of competing with Alexa’s rival, Google Assistant. At Google’s developer conference last week, the company announced six new voices generated by Wavent, including one from singer John Legend. These will roll out later this year, and presumably, could make their way to the Assistant developer ecosystem as well.

Amazon Prime members now get 10% off sale items at Whole Foods, plus other weekly discounts

Amazon announced today it will begin offering exclusive discounts to Prime members who shop at Whole Foods — a move that’s been expected since Amazon acquired the grocer last year for $13.7 billion, and more recently shut down Whole Foods’ rewards program and digital coupons. Prime members, starting today, will be able to take 10 percent off Whole Foods’ hundreds of sale items, as well as receive other “weekly deep discounts” on best sellers, Amazon says.

The savings are rolling out initially to the Whole Foods stores in Florida, but will expand to all U.S. Whole Foods Market and Whole Foods Market 365 stores this summer.

Whole Foods currently has over 470 stores in the U.S., Canada and U.K. combined, but the majority – 463 – are in the U.S.

Amazon has made fairly quick work of leveraging its investment in the brick-and-mortar grocery chain. Almost immediately following the acquisition, it began slashing prices in Whole Foods’ stores. And it already offered special coupons to Prime members to help them save more at times — like when it discounted Thanksgiving turkeys, for example.

Today’s news is now formalizing those prior efforts with a standard rewards program where Prime members can expect to take 10 percent off sale items on a consistent basis, in addition to other weekly discounts on select items. These will be labeled in store with yellow “10% off” sale signs, and “Prime Member Deal” signs, respectively.

For example, this week (5/16-5/22), Prime members at supported stores will receive the following savings:

  • Sustainably sourced, wild-caught halibut steaks: $9.99/lb., save $10/lb.
  • Organic strawberries: 1 lb. for $2.99, save $2
  • Cold-brew coffee at Allegro coffee bars: 50 percent off 16 oz.
  • KIND granola: 11 oz. bag 2/$6
  • 365 Everyday Value sparkling water: 12-pack case buy one, get one free
  • Magic Mushroom Powder: 50 percent off

It’s common for grocery stores to offer weekly savings, but in Whole Foods’ case, customers won’t have to sign up for a loyalty card or clip coupons from a circular — they have to join Amazon Prime to enjoy these savings. That could be a lure for Prime members who already shop Whole Foods, but could push price-conscious shoppers further away from the chain, given its existing reputation for high prices.

To take advantage of the new program, Prime members will need the Whole Foods mobile app, where they sign in with their Amazon account and then scan the app’s “Prime Code” barcode at checkout to apply the appropriate discounts. Alternately, they can opt in to use their phone number at checkout, if preferred.

Amazon has also set up a dedicated site for more information about the discount program (amazon.com/primesavings).

These in-store savings are not the only way Amazon has been tying Whole Foods to its larger business.

The companies also launched two-hour delivery from Whole Foods via Amazon’s Prime Now service in 10 cities across the U.S., with more to come this year, Amazon says. Plus, Amazon Prime members get 5 percent back on Whole Foods purchases with the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Card, the companies announced earlier this year.

And the stores themselves are serving as the brick-and-mortar presence for Amazon’s online store, with things like Amazon Lockers, support for returns, and the ability to shop Amazon hardware, like Echo speakers and Fire TV.

“This new Prime benefit at Whole Foods Market is a perfect pairing of healthy and delicious food at even more affordable prices,” said Cem Sibay, vice president, Amazon Prime, in a statement about the discount program’s launch. “Our vision is that every day Prime makes your life better, easier and more fun, and shopping at Whole Foods Market with exclusive deals and savings is all of this and more.”

Amazon’s cashier-less Go stores are coming to Chicago and San Francisco

Amazon is looking to open more of its cashier-less Go stores across the United States and it looks like San Francisco and Chicago will be among the next cities to get them, according to new job postings in those cities.

In response to the postings, discovered by The Seattle Times, an Amazon spokesperson confirmed that stores were being planned for both of the cities, though they didn’t specify what timing looked like.

There aren’t many details beyond the general job listings, but they do list a couple of management positions around these two sites.

Earlier this week, the SF Chronicle reported that an Amazon Go store could be coming to SF’s heavily trafficked Union Square downtown area. Meanwhile, the company has a permit for what would be a much smaller 635-square-foot “Amazon store” inside Chicago’s Loop area.

Amazon’s Go store is designed with the idea of getting consumers in and out of a convenient store-like grocery without ever having to go through the check-out process. The store relies heavily on cameras tracking customers and seeing what they select while charging them directly through an Amazon Go app. The company’s “store of the future” is currently only in Seattle and appears to be a wholly separate initiative from Whole Foods, which Amazon acquired last year.

Seattle passes new tax on large companies despite Amazon’s howls of protest

Seattle’s city council voted unanimously to approve a new tax on the largest employers in the city, despite strong opposition by Amazon and other affected companies. The tax, on companies with more than $20 million in receipts, will amount to about $275 per employee and is intended for use in improving conditions for the city’s homeless.

The original proposal was nearly twice that, but was amended as a compromise measure after local businesses protested. Amazon was the most visible of them, making the dramatic public threat of suspending construction of one of its many skyscrapers in the city and repurposing another.

While the idea that a company would simply abandon a multi-million-dollar investment halfway isn’t really credible, changes to its scheduling, budget and usage plan would certainly affect local contractors — which is why many of the latter showed up to oppose the tax on Amazon’s behalf. A heated confrontation occurred between opponents and proponents gathered in front of Amazon’s Spheres earlier this month.

The idea of laborers lobbying in favor of Amazon, which is frequently decried as an extremely labor-unfriendly company, seems odd, but in this case at least the train of thought is clear. It should also be mentioned that Amazon has worked to ease the plight of Seattle homeless with a planned shelter at the base of one of its buildings and other contributions.

Zillow and Expedia also voiced concerns, alongside many other local businesses, in an open letter. “We oppose this approach, because of the message it sends to every business: if you are investing in growth, if you create too many jobs in Seattle, you will be punished,” the letter reads in part.

Although opposition seems to have succeeded in reducing the tax burden, it did little to convince the council that the tax itself was unsound, as today’s vote indicates.

“This progressive revenue stream balances the needs of our small business community, while ensuring we have the funding we need to provide critical housing and health services,” said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda in a statement accompanying the vote. GeekWire was at the meeting and has some other interesting quotes from both sides.

The modified tax should generate some $50 million, much of which will be dedicated to “deeply affordable” housing in the city to be made available to people below the poverty line, with some going to emergency shelters and other social services. Around $11 million of that will come from Amazon. This would significantly increase (in fact, nearly double based on some estimates) existing spending along these lines.

The tax would last for five years, after which it would have to be reauthorized.

Amazon, for its part, seems to have abandoned its immediate threats for new, more vague ones. In a statement from VP Drew Herdener provided to TechCrunch, it said:

We are disappointed by today’s City Council decision to introduce a tax on jobs. While we have resumed construction planning for Block 18, we remain very apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here.