People

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.

Protocol | Fintech

How European fintech startup N26 is preparing for U.S. regulations

"There's a lot more scrutiny being placed on fintech. We are definitely mindful of it."

In an interview with Protocol, Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, discussed the company's approach to regulations in the U.S.

Photo: N26

N26's monster $900 million funding round announced Monday underlined the German startup's momentum in the digital banking market.

Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, said the funding will be used for expansion and also to improve "our core offering to make this the most reliable bank that our customers can trust," she told Protocol.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Apple’s new MacBooks are the future — and the past

After years of reinventing the wheel, Apple's back to just building really good ones.

Apple brought back the ports.

Photo: Apple

The 2015 Pro was, by most accounts, one of the best laptops Apple ever made. It was fast and functional, and it had a great screen, a MagSafe charger, plenty of ports, a great keyboard and solid battery life. If you walked around practically any office in Silicon Valley, you'd see Pros everywhere.

Many of those users have been holding on to their increasingly old and dusty 2015 Pros, too, because right about when that computer came out was when Apple seemed to lose its way in the laptop market. It released the 12-inch MacBook, an incredibly thin and light computer that made a bunch of changes — a new keyboard and trackpad design chief among them — that eventually made their way around the rest of the MacBook lineup. Then came the Touch Bar, Apple's attempt to build an entirely new user interface into a laptop.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Imagine a company where there are no meetings — just time for deep, focused work punctuated by short conversations on Slack and project updates on Trello.

Now imagine a company where the no-meeting ethos is so ingrained that it's possible to work there for 10 years without ever speaking face-to-face with a single coworker, and for your boss to not even recognize the sound of your voice.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma
Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.
Protocol | Workplace

#AppleToo activist says Apple fired her for deleting apps from her devices

Janneke Parrish says she was dismissed after deleting Robinhood, Pokemon Go and Google Drive from her work devices during an investigation inside the company.

The Apple Too movement is trying to organize Apple workers into a collective movement.
Photo: Bloomberg via Getty

Unlike most other companies, Apple asks that its employees use their work phones like personal ones — and for five years, Apple program manager Janneke Parrish did as she was told. But last week, when Apple asked Parrish for her devices in an internal investigation, she was afraid Apple would see her personal and private information. She disobeyed orders and deleted apps like Robinhood, Pokemon Go and Google Drive. Then Apple fired her.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Latest Stories