COVID-19 could push us to cut the cord faster than ever

Marc Whitten, Amazon's VP of Entertainment Devices and Services, says some of our entertainment habits may have changed forever as a result of stay-at-home orders.

Amazon's ​VP of Entertainment Devices and Services, Marc Whitten.

Education apps on Fire TV are up 400% in usage, according to Amazon's VP of Entertainment Devices and Services, Marc Whitten.

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon

COVID-19 has forced many of us to adjust to a new reality of remote work. But we've also had to grasp the reality of remote play — and according to Amazon's VP of Entertainment Devices and Services, Marc Whitten, we may never unlearn some of those new habits.

In the last several months, he said in a recent interview with Protocol, the breadth of what people are asking their devices to do for them has changed dramatically. "People are finding ways to continue to be productive" even when it comes to entertaining themselves, whether it's education, cooking and fitness. They're finding new ways to entertain themselves by engaging with content differently.

Protocol spoke with Whitten about user behavior changes around entertainment since the pandemic hit, how that will change in the coming months, and whether Amazon is continuing to innovate while its staff works from home.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What's been the effect of the pandemic on everything you work on at Amazon?

We're seeing a lot of usage across our devices, whether that's Echo and Alexa devices or Fire TV, or tablets or readers. And it's interesting because we're seeing more users on the devices, we're seeing them come back to the devices more frequently, and we're seeing them use them for more hours. So their intensity is higher. And I think in some ways it's just confirmed that our customers are looking for things that can help them relax, things that can help them be entertained, things that can help them manage what's going on in their life.

If you were to look at an example like Fire TV, the usage is up very, very significantly, and the hours per user is up significantly. There's a lot of things that you'd probably expect: People are watching more Prime Video and Netflix and Hulu and all of the places where great TV and video content is. But then there's some things that I think really surprised us. Education apps on Fire TV are up 400% in usage. Exercise apps and meditation apps, they're up to 200% to 300% in usage. One of the other areas that's interesting is family-friendly content viewing. That, as a category itself, is indexing up 40+% higher than it was. And so we're seeing people find ways that these devices can be more useful for them when they lose a bunch of their other options.

Was there any kind of an initial spike followed by a drop-off, or has it been sustained growth since remote work started?

It's been pretty consistent frankly across all the different types of devices. I think some of it may change as stay-at-home orders lift and as people start being more mobile. Hopefully people are out and moving and doing other things, so you may see drops then. But as far as from the beginning of the three months into now, if anything, it's just continued to build on itself as people are just looking for other options. I think Alexa answers tens of thousands of different questions and types of questions on COVID-19. And as the education apps are being used more and more, the types of questions are actually also changing. People are asking a lot more about math and other things — you can tell we're all sort of struggling to help our kids with homework.

As some states are beginning to lift pandemic-related restrictions, how are you thinking about the staying power related to the rapid adoption that you started to see at the beginning of all of this?

I think there's two categories here. The first is usage we're getting because people can't go anywhere else. Frankly, I hope that ends tomorrow. The sooner that people are able to live their lives in whatever way they want, the better.

The other side of it, though, is I do think that we're witnessing a variety of perhaps more-durable changes as customers experience some new things. I'll start with Fire TV: I feel like we've probably accelerated cord cutting by, I don't know, a year? I'm making that particular number up, but I think there are a lot of people that have suddenly tried this, and they will perhaps stick with it where maybe they weren't in the audience before.

I also think that we're seeing that as we're all working from home more, there will be more flexibility in the workforce as we've learned to work in a different way. The types of things I'm using my tablet for more are productivity things — taking notes and stuff like that. I think communication on our Echo devices is also one that we saw: We've seen people trying that, and I expect we'll continue to see them try even after things return to a new normal.

Switching away from the customer, how has managing a remote team shifted both the day-to-day of your team and the facilitation of innovation?

One of the things we almost immediately noticed was being on meetings all day on video was incredibly tiring. We cut down all of our hour meetings to 50 minutes and our 30-minute meetings to 25 minutes as our kind of replacement for walking from meeting room to meeting room. It's easy to get yourself into this place where you just end-call, start-call, end-call, start-call, and that's pretty exhausting. I also pushed really hard with my team to make sure they don't replace their commute time with work time. I've used my Peloton during what was my previous commute time.

We still are doing quite a bit of new product stuff. The process that Amazon always has had is to start with the customer, write a doc, work back from the customer and go from there. So as an example, probably three weeks ago, we went through a doc and decided to take some actions on wellness and morale from work from home. And then secondly, the main way we write a lot of these docs is to start with a press release, something we want to invent in the future, and write that press release and note the key things we think we'd have to believe in order to be able to build it. I've read several of those in the past couple of weeks as well.

Have the focus of those docs been more on the hardware side or the software side?

It's a little bit of both because we tend to look at things that are both near term, if we could move quickly, and then sort of longer-term things that are going to take us a while.

Early on, after the stay-at-home orders were all coming down, we recognized that people needed to use things like their Fire TV and tablet devices to find more ways to be entertained or have content. And so we wrote some very quick papers on what we could do, and we launched this location on Fire TV and tablet called #AtHome, which we've used to highlight free content and different types of content like education and fitness. We very quickly executed on it.

We're testing a tab in the UI of Fire TV for "free" that helps people find just the free content that they may be looking for. We've done a partnership with Food Network Kitchen to give all customers a year of that experience to help them cook and connect — the types of things that they're doing home.

Then on the other hand we're always looking at how our customers' behaviors or interests or needs are going to change in the future and asking what would the types of either devices or software services be that we need to build around those. Those tend to be a little further out, call it one to three years out.

How are you thinking about your timelines for the next six to 12 months compared to how you were thinking about them four months ago or at the beginning of 2020?

I think we're learning along with everybody else. I think the impacts of this are going to be long lived, unfortunately. It's hard to exactly know what's going to go on over the next six to 12 months, but I think there's going to be some hard things for all of us.


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