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Another Perspective


Crimea River

Generally speaking, war is a male pursuit.  Women warriors, Amazons, are an exception.  Generally speaking, public company capitalism is about profit, with emphasis on near term earnings.  Amazon.com, taking the long view while favoring revenue, is an exception.  The Amazon women's tribe mythology is huge, and it is consistent with the findings of archeologists; they say that dramatically matriarchal societies are threads in the fabric of European civilization.  Amazon.com exhibits unusual behavior, too; it succeeds far beyond the expectations of skeptics, confounding and punishing gainsayers who put bearish money where their grousing pie-holes lie.

amazon
Amazon
Ancient Greeks spun fabulous myths about the Amazons,
a tribe of women warriors widely illustrated as here on a ceramic

While there is little evidence of any Amazon nation that lived up to the grandeur of its mythological manifestations, there is plenty of factual material showing that women in various times and places took on roles that were usually those of men for most of history.  Graves dating to the fifth century B.C.  in Crimea and across the Aral Sea—where Russia's Don River terminates and serves as an approximate boundary separating Europe from Asia—show quite a few women were buried as warriors.  Greek soldiers and travelers who visited the far reaches of the Hellenic sphere of influence during the last few centuries before Christ could well have amplified the role of women in Scythia, a region north and northeast of Crimea.  With repetition and embellishment, what may have begun as oral reporting about life on the western rim of central Asia could well have spawned the powerful Amazon myths that enrich the folklore of classic Greece and its cultural successors.

Just as Amazons real and imagined seem to have appeared where Europe meets Asia, Amazon.com thrives as a cultural boundary dweller connecting suppliers of goods (and increasingly services, too) in legacy economic realms with new generations of mobile digital consumers.  Without Amazon.com, these consumers would never enjoy the phenomenal access to things provided by Amazon's websites around the world.  Amazon.com's position in the digital culture has a lot in common with that of Constantinople during the height of the Byzantine era.  Constantinople, which is called Istanbul today, linked the West with the East, the Roman Empire and its successors with the exotic, inventive, and productive economies of China, India, and all that lay between the Mediterranean and the Pacific.

Scythia map
Scythia
This region north and east of the Black Sea is where the east of Europe
met the west of Asia in a large area ruled by tribes
that descended from ancient Iranians and may have spawned the Celts and Scots

There are plenty of examples of Amazon.com inventing what amounts to a new business that connects buyers and sellers who would otherwise not meet.  A current example that has provoked a great deal of deserved interest in the media is the online merchant's entry into the world variously called 3D printing, rapid prototyping, and additive manufacturing.  Amazon.com, along with a number of vendors and resellers, has for some time offered 3D printing apparatus for the hobbyist.  Amazon also sells scanners that can capture solid shapes and software that can be used to create, edit, and otherwise manipulate the mathematical descriptions of solid objects.  But what now has set Amazon apart from most others is its entry into the sale of 3D printing services.  People who don't have (and don't want to have) their own 3D printer can turn to Amazon for hookups with companies that will accept your scan of, for example, a chess piece, and return a plastic replica of that piece.

Amazon.com's entry into the 3D printing service game is not unique.  Staples, which is a serious rival of Amazon.com's in a number of business segments, has launched similar services and it also sells small rapid prototyping and related consumables.  Similarly, Home Depot and UPS are seeking a place in this business segment.  For 3D printing projects that require materials and fabrication precision beyond the limited range available from Amazon.com and its ilk there are also innumerable 3D printing service bureaus with industrial quality equipment.  Additionally, prototyping system vendors like 3D Systems, one of the rapid prototyping industry's largest equipment providers, have become large and influential participants.  Professional service bureaus provide a lot more than access to object creation machinery; they sell their expertise and experience in what is a new field for Amazon but a pretty mature one for industrial designers and toolmakers.

Alexander and Thalestris
Wondering Woman
Alexander the Great was said to have received a conjugal visit
from Thalestris, queen of the Amazons, who was hoping
to beget some high achieving kids, depicted by Johann Georg Platzer

What sets Amazon.com apart from the rest of the field, at least for now, is its emerging presence in 3D image capture, a key feature of the Kindle Fire Phone.  The Fire Phone's 3D imaging system has initially been promoted as a way to use real world objects as initiators of information lookups.  That gives Amazon.com an angle that no other company yet has.  Amazon.com's closest rival in object searching is Google, which has powerful 2D image recognition capability supporting its Goggles app.  Google is also on the threshold of 3D recognition via its Google Glass offering.  Apple undoubtedly has 3D image technology up its corporate sleeve, but has yet to make a public splash with it.  There are iPhone apps that use the phone's camera to capture images with depth, but nothing in Apple's announced arsenal of gadgets has the kind of imaging hardware that would allow apple to directly compete with Amazon.com or Google.  Still, Apple's move could well happen soon, as 3D image capture, recognition and processing will soon be baked into the requirement of many enterprises.  It's clear that many businesses will want a powerful mobile presence that includes 3D imaging features, and among those will be some that will hope to get the capability from IBM and its new partner Apple.  If they must, these IBM customers will put aside their preferences and turn to Amazon.com or Google to capture and use 3D images.  Among the business segments where 3D applications are likely to soon take off with or without Big Blue's involvement are medicine, insurance, and engineering.  In many other areas of endeavor aspects of almost any business such as field support will hanker for 3D image support.

Even with the possibility of some formidable competitors leaping into the 3D world of image capture, object recognition, and solid object printing, Amazon.com has one outstanding advantage: Mayday, the live support capability baked into Kindle Fire tablets and phones.  No company, not even Apple, offers the superior user support Amazon provides to users of its mobile devices.

When the world is fully acclimated to the use of 3D cameras, their applications and related remote object printing services the need for Mayday support might diminish.  But right now Mayday is the most powerful argument for buying an Amazon.com phone or tablet.  Chances are that Mayday will remain a vital, outstanding part of the Amazon.com ecosystem for the foreseeable future.

Today, Amazon.com simply has the smartest vision of cloud-based services.  It knows you can never make mobile devices and their apps totally user friendly.  Mayday is to applications what Google's outstanding Maps navigation system is to travel: more than a wonderful offering, one that is, for now at least, totally unbeatable.

If you have a map of southeastern Europe, you can draw a line connecting the mouth of the Don River to Istanbul.  It will cut through Crimea and more or less touch the Salhyr River, one more locale where stories about Amazon women (and perhaps a little archeological evidence) originated.  There, the Amazon mythology is supported in part by the classical Greek historian Herodotus.  As fierce then as they are today, Crimean soldiers, very likely including women, made a powerful impression on the ancient Greeks, who were no slouches themselves when it came to taking over territory.  Nevertheless, the Greeks and their Roman successors had an advantage over tribal cultures like that of the Scythians (and their Amazons) because they had vastly more advanced economic systems.  Then as now, trustworthy coinage, good record keeping, and the force of law and custom backing commercial integrity significantly amplify the raw power of armies, including today's armies of sales reps.  Amazon is a master of commerce but until now its business services were pretty much confined to its websites and the webs of merchants for which it provided support.  That's a lot of territory, but it is still tightly bounded.  Amazon is about to break those bounds.

Amazon.com is going to extend its reach by placing remote transaction terminals in the hands of mobile device users, much the way Square, among others, has done.  Amazon.com's end users will be able to accept card payments at affordable rates under rules that are expected to resemble the very friendly scheme built by Square for users of its tiny card readers and related services.  Equipped with a Fire phone boasting a card reader, an end user, such as a home maintenance contractor, will be able to identify items in real time, buy them from Amazon.com or a related merchant, have otherwise unavailable items fabricated via Amazon.com's 3D printing service (or the service of an affiliate such as Staples or Home Depot), and bill a customer for the parts and related labor costs incurred during a job--all in real time.

This scenario may seem farfetched to a devout big city-dweller with perpetually clean fingernails.  This person turns to a landlord, superintendent, or contractor when something goes amiss at home.  By contrast, in rural settings the possibilities opened up by Amazon.com will quickly stimulate and transform local services.

It is not uncommon in small towns to find skilled tradesmen and craftsmen whose enterprises are packed into a van, box truck or capped pickup rather than housed in a shop or backyard factory.  A mobile tradesman on call will show up at a customer's premises to do plumbing, repair gutters, fix windows, adjust door locks, and so forth.  If Amazon.com's plans bear fruit, rural tradesmen and craftsmen will learn to use Amazon's devices and offerings to provide improved services and get better cash flow.  In cities and suburbs that still have functioning neighborhoods, where local service folk operate in a fashion similar to that of their rural counterparts, Amazon.com will also be a natural fit.  Elsewhere the future role of an increasingly enriched Amazon.com is harder to predict, but the success of Amazon Prime premium services is a sign that Amazon understands its suburban customers as well as those in the cities and countryside and that it will be able to entice these customers to use its 3D features and persuade the individuals and firms that serve these customers to integrate their businesses with Amazon.com's payment services.

As interesting as the forthcoming Amazon services will be in the USA and Europe, their potential role in India and elsewhere in Asia might turn out to be even more disruptive.  Like much of Africa, Asia has proved to be a fertile environment for mobile micropayment systems and other forms of cloud commerce.  Amazon.com, like the real Amazons of ancient Crimea and Scythia, along with their far larger and more widely dispersed mythology, will have a significant presence along the boundaries where West meets East .  .  .  and where the future reminds us how different it can be from the past.

— Hesh Wiener September 2014


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