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[Comments] (1) : I complain a lot about bad customer service, so I'd like to tell you about a time customer service improved. In 2005 I wrote some stuff about Amazon's web services (service, at the time) for Beginning Python. I needed a tiny clarification so I sent an email to Amazon. I did the little dance I do when triggering customer service to try and avoid being treated like an idiot. I clearly explained my problem and cited specific sections of the document I was having trouble with (call it document X). I got back a boilerplate response saying "We value your existence. Please see document X." I got mad and I sent a pissy response which they didn't bother with.

Today I wanted to talk to Amazon about stuff I wrote in RESTful Web Services. I sent an email to the contact address of the AWS weblog. Now I'm having a conversation with two real people who are interested in the book.

What happened? There are a couple obvious differences. The first is that I'm writing a book for O'Reilly called RESTful Web Services, not a book for Wrox called Beginning Python. My publisher has more cachet and my topic is hotter. But the Amazon of 2005 didn't even care that I was writing a book: it just scanned my email for a keyword and matched it to some boilerplate.

What actually happened is that Amazon Web Services got a weblog. With a few exceptions, even corporate weblogs are written by specific people, and you can contact those people. But why did AWS get a weblog, and why do the people who run this weblog care about my book? How come it's now part of somebody's job to see the opportunity in my email and respond to it sanely, when it wasn't in 2005?

These days, Amazon's web services make money for Amazon. This was true in 2005, but back then all the money came in as retail purchases. Now people are hosting websites on S3 because it's (apparently) cheaper than having a rack of boxes and a sysadmin. That's not much income compared to Amazon's retail business, but it's nonzero, and it shows up as a separate line item. Now it makes sense to actively promote these services. Which leads to the weblog, which leads to real people talking to me. In 2005 my email was a cost to be borne as lightly as possible. Now it's a potential source of profit.

I'm going to drift into the semirelated topic of business models for web services. (I don't cover this at all in the book, which is purely technical.) A lot of web services are prestige items or loss leaders. So are a lot of websites, actually. This is the underlying reason why Google shut down its SOAP-based search service. Google's business is to deliver ads, not search results. Google already has huge mindshare in search, so the SOAP service served no business purpose. Now they expose search results through an ad-laden Ajax widget whose TOS prohibits you from changing it. If you want programmatic access to search results you use Yahoo's service.

My hunch is that users get treated better when the business model is more transparent. Some web services bring in money directly. Some are exposed to people who are paying for something else. Some are run by volunteers or nonprofits. I hesitantly include in this category services exposed within a company.

My hunch on top of a hunch is that the business model can be more transparent when the web service doesn't just copy some preexisting website. That is, when a client can't screen-scrape something that's already available for free and have a "web service" that's just as good, or better.


Posted by Rachel at Tue Mar 06 2007 20:47

Amazon thinks they can get away with not sending me my new edition of LP Eastern Europe until April. Screw them and the extra 4% discount I'd get; I'm ordering it from Russo's. Maybe they think there is not much profit to be made from people who go to Eastern Europe because it is cheaper than Western Europe (they are wrong).


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