SEATTLE — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos couldn't care less how old your Kindle is.
"We don't need people to be on the upgrade treadmill. If I see people using a 5-year-old Kindle, I'm delighted," Bezos says.
Of course, he'd be equally delighted to sell you new hardware. Today Amazon unfurls a potentially disruptive tech-support feature — Mayday — that's aimed at rescuing people from their frustrations. The free service arrives with the company's newest tablets, the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX, and the 8.9-inch version that you can now pre-order online. "Our goal is to revolutionize tech support," Bezos says, in an interview with USA TODAY at Amazon headquarters.
Tech support? Really? Free? Really. In fact, Mayday is the kind of knock-your-socks off feature that is not only sure to get attention, but that will play into Bezos' grand plan to cement Kindle's place in an excruciatingly competitive tablet market. And, oh yeah, it might just get you to seriously consider Amazon's latest hardware, too.
Amazon's three-legged strategy starts, Bezos says, with Amazon selling premium products at non-premium prices. The 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX starts at $229, while its 8.9-inch sibling goes for $379 on up. But Amazon has also upped the specs on last year's Kindle Fire HD model with an all-new version that drops that price from $199 to $139.
The second part of the strategy is to make money when people use the devices, not necessarily when they buy them, since Amazon sells the products at roughly break-even prices.
The third leg is where an innovative feature like Mayday comes in, at the intersection between what Bezos refers to as "customer delight" and deep integration with Amazon's entire business, including the hardware, operating system, key apps, the cloud and Amazon Web services.
Bezos belts out an infectious laugh shortly before demonstrating Mayday, as he poses the question he says is on all of our minds on occasion: "Am I in control of my devices, or are my devices in control of me?"
HOW IT WORKS
During a Mayday session, in fact, you share control with the Amazon support person who turns up in a small onscreen window within 15 seconds of when you tap the Mayday button. Though you can see and hear the rep, he or she can hear but not see you.
What the rep can see, however, is precisely what you have on your screen, and can take over in real time to show you how to get things done on the device, or even do them on your behalf. The rep can also draw on the display to, for example, circle icons or buttons.
Either one of you can drag the video window around the screen so that it doesn't sit on top of something that you need to look at or tap. The screen session can be paused if you need to type in a password, which the rep won't see.
"Everybody has that feeling from time to time, no matter how sophisticated of a user you are," Bezos says. "There are things we do every day, and we get pretty good at it … and then things in the settings menus or unusual features that we only do every couple of months or once a year."
Changing parental controls in Kindle's FreeTime, altering e-mail settings, or configuring your VPN. "That's when you hit the Mayday button," he says.
Mayday is available 24/7, 365 days a year, with no time limit on how long you and the adviser can chat during a given session. I asked Bezos if anything would prevent people from tapping the Mayday button to merely mess with the representative or to socialize because they're lonely. "My prediction is that's going to happen," he said.
BEZOS: MAYDAY ON CHRISTMAS DAY
Bezos expects to have enough Amazon staffers to meet the Mayday demand. "This is kind of at the sweet spot of one of the things that Amazon does well, which is marrying high-tech and heavy lifting. We're going to be ready for Christmas Day. A lot of people are going to unwrap their devices and press the Mayday button."
Does Mayday also provide commerce opportunity for Amazon, with a rep say, steering a customer to a purchase? "That's not its primary purpose," Bezos maintains, while adding that studies show that Kindle Fires are heavily used devices. "And we think this is going to make our devices more heavily used."
For now, the Mayday feature only works over Wi-Fi, and only with 7-inch and 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX models. It won't work with the cheaper new Kindle Fire HD model.
The 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX with Wi-Fi starts shipping Oct. 18; a $329 version that adds a 4G cellular option ships Nov. 14. The Wi-Fi-only 8.9-inch model starts shipping on Nov. 14, with a $479 4G version shipping Dec. 10. The new Kindle Fire HD (which doesn't work with Mayday) ships Oct. 2.
While Mayday is the marquee addition to the latest Fire lineup, it's not the only visible improvement. (As always, I need to put the hardware through its paces before reaching a final verdict.)
The screens on both the 7-inch and 8.9-inch models look terrific, with Amazon bolstering the display resolution on each compared with the prior generation. The 8.9-inch model has a resolution of 2560 x 1600 with a ppi (pixels per inch) of 339. The previous 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD had a 1920 x 1280 resolution.
Amazon has doubled the memory, and upped the ante on the processor, to a new quad-core Qualcomm 2.2 GHz Snapdragon. Amazon claims increased battery life for the new tablets, too, up to 11 hours in mixed use and 17 hours of reading time.
In a design change, the power and volume rocker buttons across the new models move to the back of the device from the sides.
In the past, Amazon through its X-Ray for Movies and TV feature let you pull up details (supplied by its IMDb database) on actors the moment they enter a movie scene you are watching. Now, you can get the skinny on songs playing in a scene as well, with the ability to purchase available tracks. Also new to X-Ray: movie "goofs" and trivia.
X-Ray now also delivers synchronized lyrics when you're listening to music. And Amazon is letting subscribers of its Prime Instant Videos service download movies onto the tablets to watch offline on a plane or elsewhere. Previously you could only stream them.
Via a new "Second Screen" experience, you can "fling" a movie you are watching from Fire HDX to a TV enabling you to watch on the big screen, while e-mailing, browsing, playing a game or following along with X-Ray on the tablet. Since the X-Ray data reside in the cloud, and not on the tablet itself, you're not overly taxing the tablet with video-streaming chores.
"The tablet is no longer the weak link for the quality of service with the TV because that's coming directly from the cloud," Bezos says. The Second Screen feature will be available starting next month, Amazon says, and it will work with Sony's PlayStation 3 (and later this year, PlayStation 4), as well as on Samsung TVs. You will also be able to wirelessly "mirror" movies, TV shows and photos from your tablets to the big-screen TV if you have Miracast-capable accessories or TVs.
Amazon has always built its interface for Kindle Fire on top of Android, and that's still so. But the company is now playing up its own branded operating system, Amazon Fire OS 3.0 "Mojito." Among other additions, Mojito brings enterprise-level encryption to the new tablets.
Bezos touched more broadly on the tablet space during our conversation at Amazon headquarters. "These are big markets, and there's room for multiple winners pursuing different strategies, feature sets, focusing on different things," he says. "(There's) a lot of opportunity ahead — it's still very, very early."