Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Five Minutes with Richard L. Brandt, Author of One Click

I've always been a book lover, so it was easy to fall in love with Amazon.com when I first discovered it in the 1990's. I never really paid much attention to the man behind the company until only recently. But the world loves its heroes, and never seems to tire of learning more about the pioneers of new technologies. We want to know these people. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreesen... these are real people. Their stories are often instructive and inspire others to follow through on their own latent dreams.

In recent months I was seduced by the Kindle, and finally began to notice that there was also a man behind the development of this easy-to-use reading device. I'd never dug very deep into the Amazon.com story, but had always noticed it unwavering ease-of-use. With the Kindle I understood that it was no accident, and I finally discovered the man at the helm, Jeff Bezos.

After writing some laudatory comments about Bezos nine days ago, Richard Brandt (right) sent me a review copy of his book One Click so I could get a deeper look inside the Amazon.com story. I've not abandoned the enjoyment I receive from sitting in my easy chair holding a good book in my hand, so I happily plowed into it, following up with a request for an interview. Mr. Brandt graciously accepted.

Ennyman: Where are you from originally and how did you first take an interest in writing?
Richard L. Brandt: I was born in Southern California and studied math, engineering and biology in college, with a BA in biology. But I always wanted to write. By the time I graduated in the late 1970s I decided I wanted to write about science and technology. I got a fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which got me a paid internship at Business Week magazine for the summer (1980). I got a full-time position for that and stayed with BW for 14 years. I used to write science fiction in high school and turned that interest into writing about science and technology as a journalist. I found it much more fun than working in laboratories, and got to meet some of the greatest entrepreneurs in the world in the process.

EN: Are there any authors who you’ve found especially inspirational and why?
RLB: Several scientists with a talent for writing, explaining scientific principals in fascinating and educational ways: Steven Jay Gould, E.O Wilson (both of whom I met and took classes from as part of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship in 1990,) Richard Feynman, Oliver Sachs, James Watson and Francis Crick for their book "The Double Helix." Also author John McPhee and journalists Steven Levy and John Markoff, both of whom became friends of mine. Levy and Markoff know how to get at the core of the issue and explain the story with insight, not just the facts.

EN: Who are the most interesting people you’ve interviewed as a business writer?
RLB: Linus Pauling, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Sergey Brin

EN: In layman's terms what is "the cloud" and how is it going to change the future of the Internet? How is Jeff Bezos taking advantage of this transition?
RLB: The cloud, in a sense, is the internet. More specifically, cloud computing means that the work you do by computer is no longer reliant just on the processors and memory chips residing in your personal computer. Instead, you tap into the software and processing power of networks of computers through the internet, which do the heavy lifting. It's essentially like having a giant, amorphous computer, really a network of computers, attached to the machine you're using.

It started in business computing with companies like Salesforce.com. Companies don't have to buy their own computers and software to do certain tasks. They can just connect to computers and software owned by Salesforce.com, which leases computer time to them. The systems are set up to be dynamic, automatically routing work to more computers as your workload increases, and companies can pay just for the processing power they need as they need it.

Jeff Bezos started moving Amazon into this area around 2002. He had all this computing power running business software, much of which he had created, and realized he could make it all available to companies to help them run their businesses. So a lot of the work they do is actually run on Amazon computers. When you order an Instant movie from Netflix, for example, you actually tap into Amazon computers, where the movies are stored. Amazon's computers stream the films to you. The personal device you're using to watch the movie doesn't have to do very much work. The Kindle Fire represents the next step for Amazon in that direction. It was designed to be the device to which movies, TV shows, books, music and other media are streamed. That allows the Fire to have minimal memory and processing power -- and a lower price (although Bezos also sells it at a loss because the real money is in streaming the media to you.) He's been doing this since the Kindle was first introduced. That's how he can synch up the book you're reading for different devices. I can start reading a book on a Kindle, put it down and continue reading on a PC, and later read more on my cell phone. When I open the Kindle app on any of these devices it always starts at the last page I read. That's because Amazon's computers remember where I left off and make sure each device starts up again on the right page. With the Fire, Bezos plans to bring this kind of computing to a lot of different media and applications. The way he sees it, the internet is the next generation of computing, while our personal devices are merely peripherals.

EN: It’s amusing that the title of your first iteration of The Google Guys failed to connect with buyers because they (the wider public) didn’t know who these guys were. How did this mistake happen and how much difference has the new title made on sales?
RLB: The first version of the book was called "Inside Larry and Sergey's Brain." It was part of a series that started several years ago with "Inside Steve's Brain," about Steve Jobs. Each book in the series was written by a different author. But not very many people know the Google founders by their first names alone, even with their picture on the cover (and I suspect this was the case with other titles in the series.) So the publisher decided to give up on using this first-name-only approach. The paperback was released under a new title: "The Google Guys: Inside the Brilliant Minds of Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin." The book on Jeff Bezos was going to be the next in the series, "Inside Jeff's Brain," but was titled "One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com." It's too early to tell whether the new title for the Google book will make a difference in sales. It got great reviews but not a lot of traction the first time around.

EN: Thanks, Richard. I enjoyed your book on Amazon.com and will look for The Google Guys.

EdNote: You can follow Richard Brandt via the following social media channels:
Facebook: Richard L Brandt
LinkedIn: Richard L Brandt

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