independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

When techies attack: Don't make them angry. You wouldn't like them when they're angry

Employees push carts along aisles as they process customer orders ahead of shipping at one of Amazon.com's fulfillment centres in Rugeley, UK

How do tech folk pick which tech companies to hate? This week, it was Amazon's turn to become a subject of scorn among tech snobs. The giant online retailer released a video for a service it is researching called Amazon Prime Air. The service aims to deliver small packages by automated mini-helicopter to customers who live within 30 minutes of a delivery depot.

It's a novel and challenging concept, even if it is five years off from planned release. It was covered by many mainstream media outlets (there's a video of the drone helicopter in action).

But within minutes, the whole thing was being shot down. The detractors were not luddites, news organisations or ordinary punters. The naysayer constituency was made up of disgruntled tech commentators: pundits, journalists, niche marketers and others.

Amazon's flying drones were "a non-story", "a PR stunt" or "a load of cobblers", depending on which loud-mouthed source you tuned into.

To a casual observer, this might seem baffling. Why would tech folk slag off something that, on the face of it, is a geek's dream? Pique and posturing are two reasons. Here are five of the most common anti-Amazon tropes trotted out this week.

1 "Amazon is just a retailer": Ever met a tech snob? Amazon, it is argued, should not be given credit for tech developments as it is a glorified online version of Tesco. "Can't you people see that? No? Well it's my mission to enlighten you!"

2 Lack of authorised tech channel imprimatur: Pique hath no bite like an embedded journalist bypassed. "Go straight to CBS with your major R&D video? Let everyone see this without our punditry? We'll just see about that: here's a large serving of scorn about your so-called innovation."

3 "Something five years off isn't a story": There are many definitions of hypocrisy, but this one would make any dictionary's appendix. There is a long list of tech developments with far-off release dates that are breathlessly covered by those criticising Amazon Prime Air.

Take Google Glass. After thousands of "explanatory" articles, blogposts and tweets since its first PR photos in 2012, it is still not for sale. Self-driving cars? Not a hint of one going on sale anytime soon, yet miles of coverage. And the list goes on.

4 "This is just a PR stunt without any real credibility": Apparently, Amazon's Jeff Bezos has exposed himself as a slick marketer who likes to pull off stunts rather than invest in actual technology. Or such is the insinuation. In fact, it is precisely the opposite reason that the story got so much coverage. Amazon is not known for will-o-the-wisp schemes. Much to the chagrin of some shareholders, it actually foregoes larger profits in favour of expansion and development. If some publicity-hungry startup had unveiled this, people would rightly discount its credibility.

5 "It was all a Cyber-Monday hoax": Because Amazon decided to share its R&D plans on the day that most are expected to shop online before Christmas (last Monday), it apparently proves that it's just a bit of marketing fluff.

A tech company, it seems, is not allowed to be strategic about when it announces its developments.

There was a variety of other motives attributed to the giant online retailer, too. For example, the company had just been subject to an investigation by BBC's 'Panorama' and (separately) 'The Observer' newspaper over working conditions in its Welsh "fulfilment centre".

These investigations revealed a system where floor workers walk 10 miles per single night shift and are on a clock to retrieve one product from shelves every 33 seconds.

However, the revelations did not get much of an airing in the US, where Amazon released its drone helicopter video. So it is unlikely that the company fashioned its announcement as a direct response to bad publicity.

In the tech world, snarky remarks go with the territory. But sometimes, what motivates them is less to do with constructive, healthy scepticism and more to do with pique and posturing.

Irish Independent

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