“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
This quote is often attributed to Ford founder Henry Ford (although perhaps apocryphally), and it is held up time and again as the rationale behind many technological innovations. Apple founder Steve Jobs echoed Ford’s words early in his career: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
And now Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, may have just had his own “faster horses” moment.
In his annual letter to Amazon shareholders, Bezos touched on a range of topics, from where the company is going, and the small businesses that Amazon supposedly supports, to its AWS cloud offerings, and even challenging other retailers to raise their minimum wage to $15 or $16 per hour. But he also talked about the fact that failure at the company needs to scale, to reflect its big ambitions—and because failure can lead to success in other areas.
Bezos mentioned that Amazon was developing its roundly disliked Fire phone around the same time as the Echo smart speaker was in the works. “We were able to take our learnings (as well as the developers) and accelerate our efforts building Echo and Alexa,” Bezos said, once the phone was a flop.
He notes the the Echo wasn’t something customers of an internet retailer, that had really only made e-readers up to that point, were clamoring for:
No customer was asking for Echo. This was definitely us wandering. Market research doesn’t help. If you had gone to a customer in 2013 and said “Would you like a black, always-on cylinder in your kitchen about the size of a Pringles can that you can talk to and ask questions, that also turns on your lights and plays music?” I guarantee you they’d have looked at you strangely and said “No, thank you.”
The Echo, animated by its voice assistant Alexa, has gone on to become a massive hit. Bezos said that more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices have been sold since the Echo was launched in 2014. Amazon has built an entire ecosystem of devices around Alexa, buying companies like Ring and Eero to support Bezos’s vision to dominate retail by making it as easy as possible to buy anything at any given time.
And while privacy questions around always-listening devices like the Echo still abound, it’s clear that the Echo has been a success. Even though no one was asking for it.