I retired in April 2013 after 25 years as a librarian at the British Library specialising in inventions. This included running numerous workshops; writing books on inventions and a work blog; carrying out searches for clients; and one-to-one meetings with inventors. [more]


11 February 2014

Amazon and its inventions

I have just been reading an entertaining, yet chilling account of Amazon's drive for global dominance of e-retailing in the New Yorker article Cheap words: Amazon is good for customers, but is it good for books ? by George Packer. The point is that customers may benefit from good prices, but everyone else loses.

Packer sets out a vision of a company that only sees books (or anything else) as commodities, which it sells as cheaply as possible in order to obtain data on potential customers for other products. This was true as far back as 1995, judging from a reported conversation with Jeff Bezos at a book fair. In fact books now only make up 7% of its sales.

Central to Amazon;s appetite for providing and searching through data, and cutting costs, is of course software. In the USA (but not Europe) software is patentable. This means that an entire approach is blocked for the term of a patent (currently a maximum of 20 years), unlike copyright, which is meant to block deliberate copying but allows fresh code to be written that would do the same thing.

An early example of this is the one click ordering system. The heart of this is in a patent filed in 1997, the Method and system for placing a purchase order via a communications network. One of the illustration pages is given below.

By remembering data about the purchaser, the patent argues, sensitive information is not made liable for interception., It also makes it more likely that the order will be completed, as many abandon an order if it is complicated to place the order.

When Barnes and Noble tried to use a system that worked much the same way in the Christmas season of 1999 they were taken to court, and there was an undisclosed settlement in 2002.

Amazon is responsible for about 1400 granted US patents and over 40 Design Patents, mostly to do with its Kindle® e-readers. Newly published US patent applications and grants can be viewed by using the Latest Patents website. The fact that so few applications are published in the company name suggests to me that they deliberately leave the name off those publications (which they are perfectly entitled to do under US law), showing the danger of relying on patent information if you are not aware of how the system works.

So far the company doesn't seem to be publishing patent specifications on the suggested drones for individualised delivery of packages.

Amazon's patents include Presenting alternative shopping options, where the illustration shown below includes determining the profitability of options.

The technology behind the Kindle® reader is from a patent filed in 2006, the Handheld electronic book reader device having dual displays, with the dual display idea having later been abandoned. There have been at least five Design Patents for the look. Those with the title "Electronic media reader" or "Touch-screen user interface" are listed here.

Those US patent specifications by Amazon incorporating in their title "customer(s)", "fulfillment" or "merchant(s)", the name Amazon gives to the companies providing product, are listed here. If you can get through the language some at least make interesting reading.

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