Inside Amazon's London digital development centre

Amazon's Digital Media Development Centre is building new services for streaming video to a wide range of devices. ZDNet went for a tour.
Written by Sam Shead, Contributor

Nestled under the famous Barbican tower blocks, on the fringe of London's Tech City, Amazon engineers are creating new ways to deliver video to more devices.

Amazon has an army of several hundred people working at its Digital Media Development Centre, after it acquired LoveFilm for £200 million in January 2011 and merged the team there with those from another acquisition, interactive TV company Pushbutton.

Paula Byrne, managing director of the Digital Media Development Centre
Paula Byrne, managing director of the Digital Media Development Centre.(Credit: ZDNet)

Amazon also hired 100 new people upon opening and is in the process of hiring a further 100. The team moved to the new offices late last year, and is tasked with building the services Amazon uses to distribute its library of films and television for streaming.

The effort is being led by Paula Byrne, who sold Pushbutton to Amazon in July 2011 and is now managing director of the Digital Media Development Centre.

"Our job here is to define the user experience of watching TV and movies on those devices and come up with easy-to-use navigation and make navigating through lots of content a really cool experience," Byrne told ZDNet.

Kindle services are developed alongside the tablet at Amazon's Seattle office.

Amazon has two products that it uses to stream video content to customers. The first is LoveFilm, which only exists in the UK, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and the second is Amazon Instant Video (AIV), which is available in the US to Amazon customers with an Amazon Prime account.

Amazon Digital Media Development Centre on the fringe of Tech City
Amazon Digital Media Development Centre on the fringe of Tech City.(Credit: ZDNet)

Amazon's content libraries are different because they are customised for each territory: Amazon customers streaming video in the US have more choice at the moment because the AIV library contains more content than LoveFilm's, explained Byrne.

One of Byrne's main tasks over the past year has been getting AIV services onto the same platforms and devices as LoveFilm.

Chillout areas are scattered with games consoles and bowls of sweets
Chillout areas are scattered with games consoles and bowls of sweets. (Credit: ZDNet)

"Last year was a major year of achievement in terms of taking big libraries of content and putting them onto the Xbox, PS3, Wii, and Wii U," she said.

But how does one go about launching a service on a new device?

"If you take something like the Xbox, Microsoft has a library of code it will give to Amazon," said Byrne. "We think creatively about how to build stuff with that code and the cleverness is in how you use it. I think of it like a toolkit; someone can build something fantastic with it and someone else can build something very average with it."

There is a continued effort to improve the services, according to Byrne. "We keep building in additional features that make it easier for customers to find what they want to watch and select the next program based on what they've already watched," she said.

Who works there?

The London centre contains a mix of graphic designers and software-development engineers who work side by side.

"We have engineers that focus on R&D and look at how technology is changing and what the next generation of devices will be capable of," said Byrne.

The bean bags make a cozy retreat for developers
The bean bags make a cozy retreat for developers. (Credit: ZDNet)

The office is littered with all the latest games consoles and full of fun distractions to ensure the creativity keeps on flowing. While on a tour of the office, ZDNet spotted everything from old-school Space Invaders arcade units to giant versions of Connect 4 that staff can play with before retreating to massive bean bags and comfy seats.

"These Nerf guns are very popular at the moment," added Byrne.

Looking ahead

Despite the fun and games, Amazon is facing increasing competition such as NetFlix, Tesco-owned Blinkbox, and Sky's Now TV. But Byrne is positive that the work the Digital Media Development Centre is doing will remain at the heart of Amazon's offering.

"There are always people around but we concentrate on what we're doing," she said. "We're a bit obsessive about looking at our own services. Delivering TV and movie content is a core part of Amazon's proposition to its customers and [in five years'] time I expect us to be right at the heart of what Amazon's proposition is."

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