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What Amazon Doesn't Want You To Know

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Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos sure doesn't like to get specific with numbers.

Apart from the phrase "Fire Phone" itself, the phrase "tens of millions" could have been the one he uttered most frequently as he stood on stage in Seattle last week to announce the company's first smartphone.

Here's a sampling from his roughly 90-minute presentation:

"And today we have tens of millions of Kindle owners."

"And today we have tens of millions of tablet owners as well."

"We've got tens of millions of songs you can buy."

"We very quickly had tens of millions of Prime members."

"That's how you get tens of millions of members."

You get the idea. When it comes to numbers, Bezos likes to talk without actually saying anything. "Tens of millions," after all, can be pretty much anything between 20 million and 999 million.

So how many Kindles has Amazon sold? 20 million? 50 million? 100 million? We'll probably never know.

It seems that Bezos has been fond of the phrase for some time. The day after last Christmas, Bezos touted in a press release that Prime, the company's annual loyalty program that includes two-day shipping, had reached "tens of millions of members worldwide."

It's a companywide phrase, too. On Monday morning, Amazon sent out a press release that said members of Prime had not only "streamed tens of millions of songs," but also "added tens of millions of songs" to their playlists using the company's new Prime music service.

So what does that mean? Did 1 million of Amazon's "tens of millions" of Prime members each listen to 20 different songs? Did 5 million listen to four songs each? As Re/Code's Peter Kafka put it, "Amazon Says Some People Have Streamed Some Music From Its New Music Streaming Service."

Bezos' lack of specifics when it comes to numbers isn't at all surprising. Amazon is a company that's notoriously secretive and rarely gives out actual figures. It can be entertaining to listen to quarterly investor earnings calls, where answers to analysts' questions tend to include quips like "I can't talk to the specifics of that," "there is not a lot I can help you with there," and "we might or might not do in the future."

Of course, Amazon is not actually required to provide very detailed information on calls with investors or in its public filings.

"The guidelines that are set forth for what has to be disclosed are fairly general," James D. Cox, a professor of corporate and securities law at Duke University, told The Huffington Post. "So there's room for lots of generalizations and, more pejoratively, perhaps even puffery."

Some other tech companies, however, share a bit more. Netflix tells investors how many members it has in the United States and how many it has "internationally," a term that for Netflix covers its operations in Latin America, Canada and the U.K., among other countries. (Investors, journalists and analysts would love to know exactly how many members Netflix has in each country.)

Although Apple is known for its secrecy, it tells investors how many iPods, iPads and iPhones it sells. It doesn't, however, say how many of those iPhones were the more expensive iPhone 5S and how many were the cheaper iPhone 5C.

Representatives from Amazon did not return a request for comment.

But Bezos defended Amazon's technique at the company's annual shareholder meeting in May, saying that rivals like Apple, Samsung and IBM could use any information to their advantage.

“Our primary approach is, we talk when we have something to say,” Bezos said, according to GeekWire. “I never think of us as secretive, I think of us as mostly quiet.”

"We take great care to try and keep our product roadmaps quiet," he said. "I would love to know what Apple’s product roadmap is. That would be very helpful to me."

 
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