In 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.