The Digitization of Everything or the Coming of the Internet of Flying Things

My post on Inside Tech Talk:

The only bit of news—and a lot of buzz—that came out of Jeff Bezos’ interview with Charlie Rose on CBS’ 60 Minutes last Sunday was the unveiling of Prime Air. It’s an Amazon “R&D project” that is investigating the delivery of packages (up to five pounds) by aerial drones, getting them to the customer’s door in 30 minutes or less.

On its website, Amazon says that “We hope the FAA’s rules will be in place as early as sometime in 2015. We will be ready at that time.” Indeed, the FAA promises to be ready by 2015 according to its “roadmap for integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems.” But in the interview, Bezos refused to commit to a specific date, talking about the work they still need to do to ensure reliability and redundancy.

Reliability is a great challenge today for octocopters (the type of drones Amazon will use) as can be seen in this YouTube video. And even if Amazon finds out how to reduce the risk to a minimum, it will always be there, to say nothing about the opposition from privacy advocates, noise complainers, and others. So why is Bezos investing in the future (or fiction) of delivery?

Some explain it as a gimmick aimed to distract investors’ attention from Amazon’s latest financial report, as if the lack of profits is anything new to Amazon’s investors. Others may see it as Google-envy, one-upping its rival by adding “flying” to “autonomous vehicles,” as if Bezos has suddenly metamorphosed into a Brin.

I see it as a logical extension of the focus on the speed of delivery that has been driving Bezos and Amazon for eighteen years. As Bezos explained to Wired’s Steven Levy when he was asked about the link between retail and Amazon’s new thrust into consumer electronics: “…we’ve always focused on reducing the time between order and delivery. In hardware, it’s the same principle. An example is the time between when we take delivery on a processor to when it’s being used in a device by a customer.”

Bezos is bothered by waste and inefficiency the same way Steve Jobs was bothered by lack of imagination or bad aesthetics.

Product design was the core of Steve Jobs’ strategy to ride the digitization of everything. The speed of delivery is the core of Bezos’. With drone delivery, he is trying to eliminate the wasteful irritation of the last mile. No matter how close to where his customers live he is going to build Amazon’s warehouses (36 and counting), the most he can promise is same-day delivery. So he is going to circumvent and disrupt UPS and FedEx, the delivery partners that have been helped so much by Amazon’s success over the last decade. In the future, he may even disrupt his own drone delivery, by completely digitizing the last mile, through 3D printing in the customer’s house.

In the 60 Minutes interview, Bezos explained everything he does by fear of disruption. He believes that Amazon, like so many other companies in the past, will be disrupted one day and will simply disappear. He just hopes that will happen after he dies. In the meantime, he rides the digitization of everything with a maniacal focus on the speed of delivery.

Update: See here for Fred Smith of FedEx talking in 2009 (!) about their desire to use drones. HT @daviottenheimer