Clouds and Whispers: How Amazon May Have Cracked the Second Screen
Amazon introduced a slew of new tablets and e-readers yesterday. If you want to learn more about them, I recommend checking our their product pages, because I’m not going to discuss them here.1
It’s the Software, Stupid
At yesterday’s press event, there was a slide that exemplified what it is that makes Amazon. “Invention does not stop with the hardware.” Amazon is, first and foremost, a software company. Hardware, really any physical aspect of selling goods, is an obstacle Jeff Bezos and friends seek to mitigate.
First Amazon took over the book-selling industry, then they took over selling everything else. Now, as our lives move into the digital realm, they want to sell bits, every bit, really. Bezos put it best: “We want to make money when people use our devices, not when they buy our devices.”
This mantra makes it clear as day what it is that separates them from Apple, who wants to sell you devices, Microsoft, who wants to sell you software licenses, and Google, who wants to sell you to advertisers. Amazon’s prime directive is to sell you content, and the only way they can do that is if you have devices on which to experience them.
The backbone of Amazon’s digital machinations is called Whispersync2. Initially, all Whispersync could do was keep all of your Kindle devices on the same page. Do a little reading on your e-ink Kindle, then open up Kindle for iPhone and (boom) the furthest read page would be in sync. In my experience, this syncing has worked well enough,3 but the secret sauce is in Amazon’s ecosystem of apps. No matter what kind of smartphone, tablet, computer or Web Browser you have, you’re likely able to access your entire Kindle library and keep everything you’re reading in sync.
And today, Amazon expanded their range of sync services with two new offerings: Whispersync for Voice and Whispersync for Games.
Glossing Over Games
Whispersync for Games is basically iOS Game Center or Xbox Live but for games you buy on your Kindle. Got it? Great.
Whispersync for Voice is very cool. Watch the video:
In short, it keeps your page in sync across not only Kindle books, but their Audible audiobook counterpart. This calls for a hearty finally. After all, Amazon owns Audible, it was only a matter of time.
I have long wanted this feature. I don’t listen to audiobooks often, but in my experience I prefer listening to non-fiction when I do. The trouble is that most non-fiction that I read (or hear) usually contains little bits of information I would like to someday reference. With ebooks I can search the text for what I’m looking for, and with a physical book I can usually feel my to the right passage. But with an audiobook? In one ear and out the other. Once the Whispersync for Voice library grows, I think I’ll actually get back into audiobooks again.
But this innovation points to much more than a boon to my edge-case quirkiness.
There are a handful of really annoying buzzwords that have been floating around the past few years. Second Screen Experience! Social TV! Basically, viewers are using a second screen (iPad, laptop or smartphone) while they watch television. Media companies are trying to figure out how to get their full attention on more than one screen at a time (usually to them sell hair cream and laundry detergent). It’s still the wild west, but I think Amazon has cracked part of the nut, here.
Most second screen implementations, like Microsoft’s Xbox Smart Glass, focus on enhancing the primary content with extras on your tablet.4 Whispersync for Voice is different because users are actually buying two complete products, two different versions of the same book that they can use with or without its counterpart. That, I think, is something that is actually useful for consumers.
The possibilities for this kind of content syncing are endless, though some may seem more outlandish than others. Imagine, for example, being able to watch a film and have the screenplay stay in sync in front of you on your Kindle. Consider being able to tie the disparate strands of the Star Wars universe together by being able to sync up the story-lines of the films and books, or at least keep them readily accessible if ever timings overlap. Or perhaps sync up relevant film history books to the film you are currently watching.
Not everything Amazon does is a success (remember Silk?), but I have trouble believing consumers will shun Whispersync for Voice. My hope is that it becomes prevalent enough that content makers, of all formats, will be able to put together packages that will make media consumption of the future look like, well, the future.
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Née Whispernet. ↩︎
I prefer iBooks’s method of automatically syncing to your page over Kindle’s dialog pop-up asking if you want to go to the furthest page, but it still works. ↩︎
Amazon, in fact, is introducing their own information layer for video called X-Ray, which pulls up on IMdB (an Amazon company) content when you tap on an actor’s face in a movie, but that’s for another post. ↩︎