The Second Eclectic

What we do shapes who we are. And technology shapes what we do. Exploring the shapes.

The Amazon Highway

One-hundred years ago, rutted dirt roads were still pretty common in the United States. Most families still owned a horse to engine their buggies. Or they could unhitch it and bridle the engine itself. Those who had cars didn’t have such liberties even though they traversed the same rutted roads. All of them, though, were busting wheels and axles and getting stuck in the mud.

Then came the Lincoln Highway. The Lincoln Highway, begun in 1913, became the first highway to span the United States, New York to San Francisco. It was ambitious, visionary, ahead of its time.

The Lincoln Highway started humbly enough with “seedling miles.” These were country roads between country towns. They'd been paved with concrete, smooth and clear and mud free. These agriculture-invoking seedling miles sprouted up first in Illinois and then elsewhere. The new technology wasn't cheap. The $10 million-dollar price tag for the project is equivalent to $230 million dollars today, and most of it was privately funded. But who paid to pave these country roads? And why?

Carl G. Fisher was the man who came up with the idea and spent more than a decade promoting and building it. He recruited donors like Henry Joy and C.B. Seger to fund the project and expand the roadway. Henry Ford, for his part, thought the government should fund road improvements and abstained from the project.

So who were these guys? Well, “Fisher operated what is believed to be the first automobile dealership in the United States in Indianapolis” (Wikipedia), and he invented the acetylene headlights used in most early automobiles; Henry Joy was president of Packard Motor Car Company; and Seger was president of the United States Rubber Company. Their interest in the highway system becomes clear when you connect the dots. I wonder, though, if at the time, these connections were as clear to those still horsing around. Even if they were clear, the investments were a risk. What if people didn't buy the cars?

These early highway pioneers had a vision. Fisher, Joy, and Seger recognized that more roads would demand more headlights, cars, and tires. "When you reduce friction, make something easy, people do more of it." Smooth, well-maintained roads did exactly that.

Implicit to their vision was an understanding of the relationship between the medium and the message. The demand for their products grew because they improved the right medium—roads. But not just any roads. They already had those. They needed a medium that capitalized on the strengths of their new technology. So these men built smooth highways for swift cars. They reduced friction. People bought cars and tires and headlights. With the right medium, these men expanded their messages, and lined their pockets.

Today, Apple and Amazon are transforming publishing in similar ways. Someday, one hundred years from now, some young, brash, upstart media ecologist may write, “One-hundred years ago, paper books were still pretty common in the United States, and readers were still getting their text stuck in narrow gutters. How times have changed.” But times probably won’t have changed that much—at least, not for the medium and the message.

With Amazon’s new reduced prices for fireside-invoking Kindles and the new color touchscreen Kindle Fire, we’re once again seeing the impact of mediums. Amazon began as a humble distributor of content, a channel, like the rutted roads of yore. But quickly, Amazon is paving its roads with the Kindle, creating smoother transportation for content. And "when you reduce friction, make something easy, people do more of it." Jeff Bezos said that—last week, when he was introducing the Kindle Fire.

Of course, the Kindle isn’t an open-air highway; it’s a toll road. Even those purchase transactions are so automatic—and frictionless—as to be practically invisible.

But why is Amazon succeeding in this business where other competitors are failing? HP’s TouchPad failed miserably, and Research In Motion’s PlayBook is performing well below its projections. Apple, of course, is doing fine. But why?

The answer is content. For Apple, that content was first music and now apps (although even the apps are really carriers of content as well). For its part, Amazon has books to drive on its highways—an unprecedented library of books. It’s this availability of content that really drives the use of the iPad and the Kindle. Without content, other competitors don’t stand a chance. The innovators of the Lincoln Highway understood this. They had content to put on the highway, and the better the medium the more cars they would sell.

Amazon is taking cues directly from the Lincoln Highway playbook. Amazon is providing consumers both the highways and the cars to drive on them. Unlike the Lincoln Highway, who exactly owns the car is still a bit unclear. You can read the cars as long as your like, but you can't take them off Amazon's highway. After all, Amazon doesn't want you riding a horse down the old rutted roads, where text can still get stuck in the gutter.