Photo: Ariel Zambelich/WIREDIn the wake of the layoffs at Amazon’s Lab126, Wired takes a look at the failure of the Fire Phone and the mediocre performance of some of Amazon’s other devices. Brian Barrett thinks he knows why they fizzled: they were simply too focused on pushing Amazon goods and services, rather than on the needs of the customer.

The thing about the Fire Phone, Barrett suggests, is that if you take away the magical make-shopping-easier experience, there just wasn’t much left. And the make-shopping-easier experience wasn’t even all that popular; Amazon’s app to retrofit much of that experience to ordinary Android and iOS phones, Amazon Flow, has fewer than 100,000 installs on Android, as opposed to Amazon Prime Now, which has gathered 500,000 in less than a week, and Kindle, with over a million. It didn’t help, either, that it was priced to include a year of Amazon Prime, which made the phone look more expensive. (This actually surprises me a little—I use Flow myself, and it’s invaluable for Amazon comparison shopping, especially when I’m somewhere like Fry’s that does price-matching.)

And he ties these same failings to Amazon’s other hardware products, such as the Fire tablets or Fire TV. which might have sold all right but none of which really set the world on fire the way the Kindle e-reader did.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this; many companies create products that ultimately point back to themselves. Apple wants you to use iTunes and the App Store; Google wants you to use its services, but honestly just the Internet in general will suffice. The difference, though, is that dedicated Amazon hardware doesn’t make buying from Amazon that much easier; it just makes the opportunities more obvious.

“I think we can say that consumers are a little bit too smart,” says [451 Research VP Kevin] Burden. “Amazon was hoping that consumers would look at its hardware and say ‘This is going to be a better way to consume Amazon services, I’m going to be able to buy things a lot easier on these pieces of hardware.’ When the reality was, most consumers are smart enough to realize that regular hardware—whether a PC, a laptop, and iPhone, or an Android phone, it was just as easy.”

The Kindle took off because it was so simple and easy to use, but even it is locked into the Amazon ecosystem—and unlike other e-readers, it limits the types of formats you can load on.

The thing about Amazon is that, as Barrett says, it’s already easy to purchase things from Amazon no matter what platform you use. That’s part of why Amazon’s made it as big as it has. If you try to make it easier, you just end up coming off as pushy and looking too desperate.

Amazon’s hardware tries to pretend to be general-purpose, but it’s really not. You can’t easily buy apps for Fire Tablets from anywhere outside of Amazon, for instance, which is why I’ve been reluctant to buy one myself. I like my general-purpose hardware to actually be general-purpose. If Amazon wants to keep making this kind of hardware, it’s either going to have to loosen up a little, or figure ways to fill niches that don’t already have a better general-purpose alternative.


  1. I agree with your basic premise, that you don’t need an Amazon device to order from them. I have a Kindle Fire but have never ordered anything from it other than Kindle books. Speaking of which, you wrote:
    The Kindle took off because it was so simple and easy to use, but even it is locked into the Amazon ecosystem—and unlike other e-readers, it limits the types of formats you can load on.

    Both the Kobo and the Nook e-ink readers limit the types of formats you can load, so am not sure what you are talking about.

  2. Amazon, with its megalomania, may not realize that its most useful role may not be to create products of its own, which are often mediocre, or to sell items through its huge warehouses, where workers are sometimes brutally exploited.

    No, where Amazon actually shines is as a one-stop store front for others who ship from their own locations. Amazon lets us do that wisely by comparing products and reading reviews. Most of what I buy from Amazon, including used books, fits in those categories.

    Some of those sources are interesting. When the defrost heating element went out on my refrigerator last year, the manufacturer wanted about $50 for a replacement. Through Amazon, I found a guy who was selling them, shipping included, for $10. And in an email, he told me that finding that little niche in the market had rescued him from being unemployed in a NJ town with few jobs. Amazon gave him the visibility he needed, and with his own efforts he made a good business out of that.

    I worry that Amazon, with its urge to dominate and control, may turn its attention to those little outfits and try to squeeze every penny it can out of them. If the company’s executives are wise, they’ll encourage and support that sort of enterprise rather than merely exploit it. It’s what Apple does with its app store, to the benefit of all.

    Unfortunately, with Amazon you never know what they will do.

  3. I mildly disagree with the general media assessment of the Fire Phone. Yes, it was an incredibly bad buy at $699 or locked to ATT. And it has been a failure. But at $130 to $199, compare the Fire Phone specs to other smart phones in that price range – add a free year of Prime and it’s not a bad phone at all.

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