Burning the Page Excerpt: Jason Merkoski's Inside Story Of The Kindle (Part 3)

The following is part two of a five part excerpt from Jason Merkoski's Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (click here to read Part One and here's Part Two). Merkoski was an early innovator on Amazon's Kindle team, and his new book discusses how ebooks came to be, as well as where they're going. This excerpt is about the inside story of the Kindle:

At Amazon, we were like techie versions of the early workers who toiled in Gutenberg’s workshop to invent the original printed books.

Life in the Kindle offices in the early days was like working in an alternate, over-caffeinated, sugar-high universe. And I loved it. The offices were loud with the sounds of BlackBerries and pagers going off. The building shook every ten minutes as a streetcar rumbled past, and the hum of a microwave melting someone’s leftover Indian dinner filled the air at lunchtime. Inevitably the cries of an engineer shouting at the top of his lungs would emerge from a conference room, along with the pounding of his fists against the whiteboard walls as he made his point.

In the kitchen you would find occasional stacks of Top Pot donuts, local Seattle fritters that tasted like they’d been deep-fried in nothing but pure sugar, cocaine, and aspirin. You’d also find the remains of catered breakfasts or lunches that senior management would put out in a kitchen for anyone else to have when they were done eating, like lords of the manor throwing their vassals an occasional bone to nibble on.

Like most technology companies, Kindle had lots of beer, usually on Friday afternoons. People would often bring in six-packs, open them near someone’s desk, and stand around and talk at the end of a long day. Some bizarre conversation would emerge, full of crazy, hypothetical what-ifs like: “If you could suspend a killer whale from a rope and suspend a tiger from a rope and let them attack each other, who would win?”

If you walked among the warren of cubicles we inhabited, you would find Amazon-issued Magic 8 Balls, humming computers, Kindles connected to power cables, teetering printouts of architecture diagrams or spreadsheets, posters from Battlestar Galactica on how to spot Cylons, tipsy engineers still arguing about whether the killer whale would get the tiger, discarded Kindle boxes being used to prop up Foosball tables, and an arcade-style, fully functioning Donkey Kong game I could never beat.

Amazon was, in short, a bit of a slapdash Seattle dot-com—but one with billion-dollar revenues and razor-thin profit margins. Those thin margins meant that we had to stay focused on launching Kindle, without distraction.

We also had to be highly secretive in the early days of Kindle. We weren’t allowed to take our Kindles home or show them to our families or get caught using them in public, out of fear that someone outside of Amazon would see the Kindle and leak information to blogs or newspapers.

But with this secrecy came a great feeling of pride and privilege. I felt like one of the first people to use an iPod, years before anyone else even knew it existed. The Kindle was a secret I couldn’t share with anyone, not even my family!

Until the Kindle launched, the only other place on the planet that knew about it was Lab126 in Cupertino, California, where the Kindle hardware was designed.

In the very early days of Kindle, when its eInk screen was just a gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye, Amazon was smart enough to realize it had never done manufacturing before. It was great at website sales, but it had no expertise in making hardware. Jeff decided it would be best to spin up a new organization solely responsible for this.

The name Lab126 came from a technical kind of pun. Amazon already had its “A to Z” development center in Palo Alto, which developed technologies like the A9 search engine that Amazon uses. Jeff wanted Lab126 to be a research facility—hence the “Lab” part of its name.

As for the “126” part, well, you have to realize that there was never a Lab125 or a Lab124, just like there was only ever a Preparation H, never a G or an F. The “126” part stems from the fact that “A” is the first letter of the alphabet and “Z” is the 26th, a techno-geeky homage to the “A to Z” development center. Jeff liked his geeky in-jokes—you could have heard his laugh a mile away when they came up with that name.

To attract and retain the best hardware engineers, Lab126 would be located not in Seattle but in Silicon Valley. The Lab126 offices were originally in a mini-mall across the street from a music studio and a slightly sleazy jewelry store. But due to the number of new hires, the lab quickly grew out of its old space and moved to Cupertino, right in the heart of the Valley. Moving to Cupertino put them in the big leagues—they were now in the same city as Apple.

After a year running Kindle’s ebook software team, I was asked to take the lead in launching Kindle as its program manager. That meant I had to know everything about the Kindle hardware, so I started flying down to Lab126 on a regular basis. I went to bridge the gaping cultural chasm between Amazon and Lab126. Everyone in Cupertino understood hardware, and everyone in Seattle understood the web, but neither understood the other. Amazon understood web services; Cupertino understood consumer electronics.

And the combination of the two: ebooks? It was new territory for everyone.

On visiting Lab126 for the first time, what you’d notice would be the stark contrast in floor layout between Amazon’s offices and Lab126’s. Amazon has a messy organic layout. All the floors are open, with people at desks sitting side by side in a vast room without walls, like a Southeast Asian call center or some fly-by-night dot-com’s tech support division. The Lab126 offices resemble a printed circuit board, in keeping perhaps with the mentality of a hardware engineering company. All the cubicles and hallways are aligned at right angles, with efficient pathways in between. Being at Lab126 was like being on the circuit board inside a Kindle.