May 2014

Volume 29 Number 5

Don't Get Me Started : Mayday!

David Platt | May 2014

David PlattSanta brought me an Amazon Kindle Fire HDX tablet this past Christmas. I especially like its groundbreaking feature called the Mayday button. In case you’ve never seen a war or disaster movie in your life, “Mayday” is the international radio distress call, from the French “M’aidez,” meaning “help me.” When you can’t make your Kindle do what you want, you just tap that button and a live human being appears on your screen to help you.

I tried it on Christmas day. It took eight or nine seconds to connect me to a guy also named Dave, whom I could see in a small window. He could see my screen contents but he couldn’t see me through the Kindle’s camera (he said). He solved my problem (music from wouldn’t play, but local MP3s would) rather quickly, drawing on my Kindle screen saying, “Tap here, then tap there, then select this thing and that should do it.” Indeed it did.

I tried the Mayday button a few more times on subsequent days. Connecting never took more than 10 seconds. Support rep Elaine quickly fixed my browser from freezing at, but couldn’t help me get past Level 28 on Candy Crush. She did offer some general hints, though: “Try to make matches as low down in the stack as you can, so the new candies dropping in from the top make more matches as they fall.”

This is revolutionary. You get: a live, English-speaking human being; automatically connected to your specific device; more or less instantly at the tap of a button; at no extra cost, as part of the basic functionality of your consumer-grade product. It’s a quantum leap better than what I get on my Nexus, my Surface or even my iPad.

This feature can’t be cheap to provide. Amazon probably figures the Mayday button will convince customers to buy Kindles instead of other tablets, which in turn will lead them to buy more content from Amazon, probably driving the final stake into the heart of Barnes & Noble, thereby sending even more customers to Amazon. It’s sort of like selling word processors along with PC OSes, which I think I remember hearing about once or twice.

Having a live human look at your Amazon history might worry some users. I suspect readers felt more comfortable ordering “The Sex-Starved Marriage” by Michelle Weiner Davis remotely from Amazon, rather than plunking it down in front of a human cashier at a bookstore. But even though I’m talking to another human, Kindle still feels anonymous to me. Like a parishioner talking to a priest in a confessional, I can see him, but he can’t see me.

I wonder if customers will start using the Mayday button to unburden their souls, as they might to a priest, a shrink or a good bartender. Your regular bartender remembers your drink order and your troubles from one session to the next; that’s why you frequent that bar. Amazon could scale this up very easily. Instead of storing state (your preferences and troubles) in specific object instances (Charlie the bartender), Amazon keeps it in a central database. When you cry “Mayday!” the next available customer rep (stateless object instance) retrieves your state from the central store, as though the substitute bartender Stacy could pull up your drinking record on Charlie’s day off.

“Yes sir, here’s your regular: a Churchill martini—chilled gin with a glance at an unopened vermouth bottle. And I see here that your wife doesn’t understand you, eh? Mine neither. OK, I’ll make that a double.” It’s a much more scalable architecture.

You tip your bartender for knowing you well and putting up with you. I can see Amazon extending that. “The tech support is free, but it’s five bucks more if I have to listen to your sob story. I can charge it right to your Amazon account.”

If anyone in the world can recognize a novel idea for profit, it’s Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. I think Siri had better watch out.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at