Today, Amazon announced it’s first-ever smartphone, dubbed with the same branding as their highly successful ebook reader/tablet (and, now, television STB), Fire. While showing some innovative flash, I felt like the result was an unclear strategy caught between “build a device that will further Amazon’s bigger business” and “build the best smartphone on the market. As a product developer in the Silicon Valley, and one who has done a turn working for an out of state (also, a Seattle based) behemoth who wanted to grab Silicon Valley’s “magic” to invigorate their business, I’ve watched Amazon’s Lab 126 effort with some interest (Lab 126 is the Cupertino, CA based Amazon group that develops Kindle and Fire devices for Amazon). My take has always been that the rational approach for Lab 126 was to build devices that further Amazon’s business as a whole, not falling down the “gadget rabbit hole” in trying to make the whizziest new gizmos but, rather, those that further a well-reasoned strategy. Indeed, that seems like the logical pursuit given Amazon’s strengths and successes to date, Kindle being a case in point.
In my opinion, Kindle’s success lies not in being the best tablet out there (many can logically argue that it is, though), but that it provides the best customer experience for book discovery, acquisition and consumption. It is a breeze to find books, to buy them and receive delivery (instantly) and read them on a Kindle. Oh yeah, and the price is giving even Costco a lesson in retail! THAT, in my humble opinion, is the strength of Amazon’s Kindle enterprise, not the killer gadget.
I should think that a phone would follow the same logic: help enable the best shopping experience capable, growing and solidifying Amazon’s customer base as a result. Sure, a strong feature set as a smartphone will encourage adoption and is important, but should largely be focused toward the strategy of building the retail business. The new Fire phone contains two new features which stood out prominently in Amazon’s introduction: a service called Firefly that can identify everything from a snack food to a pop tune based on how something looks or sounds; and a technology Amazon calls Dynamic Perspective that adjusts what users can see as they tilt or move the phone. The first feature is what I expected: its falls precisely in line with what I thought was the logical pursuit of Lab 126. The second, falls down the gadget rabbit hole.
For gear-heads: the device supports 3G with UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100 MHz). It also supports quad-band GSM/EGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz). I think that means we can expect support for 4G. It, predictably, sports a 720p resolution, so it can trumpet itself as being HD. More importantly, this means the pixel density will weigh in at 315 ppi - not an Apple Retina display, but that is pretty great at that price point. And, as I understand it, it supports Gorilla Glass and over a 1000:1 contrast ratio.
On the software: Firefly takes the concept of Shazaam, the breakthrough smartphone app that will listen to tunes on the radio and identify them for you (with links to purchase them) and applies it more broadly. It is just the sort of feature that I can see all the hipsters nodding their fedora bedazzled noggins to (though, they've pretty much got it already with the iPhone and Android phones). Further, as a device for consumption and accessing goods: you can imagine the same hipsters exclaiming this is something they want, something they need, and they’ll use Amazon to help them buy those tasty, new Doritos Dynamita chips or that cool Totoro hoodie they saw their friend wearing at the gym.
But the Dynamic Perspective feature smacks of folks trying to make a better camera phone than Apple or Samsung by putting in a (admittedly cool, particularly for the general consumer) “hot” feature. But rolling that up with a number of other decisions (which I am about to outline) show a lack of focus, a strategy that I would best describe as distracted and more generally describe as too broad to succeed. Before I go any further, let me confess to being a software developer with a lot of experience in delivering systems (hardware and software…what you might want to call “gadgets”). I, admittedly, have a bias here, albeit one borne of considerable experience. That experience I've garnered tells me that there is enormous gravitas in the lust for building a gadget and once you actually are making one of your own (as opposed to just writing software – an app, if you will – that runs on someone else’s gadget), your lust to make “the killer gadget” tends to overpower your reason, causing you to lose sight of the strategy that caused you to embark down the gadget development path in the first place. It is this phenomenon that I fear might be consuming Amazon’s effort. Remember, my assertion that Amazon’s success in general, and with Kindle specifically, was that it was that it provides the consumer with a great retail experience unmatched by Amazon’s competitors either individually or en masse. They've done such a great job of embedding Amazon's web presence already in a manner easily adopted on the competing platforms, that outstepping themselves is a tall enough order on its own!
Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of cool features in the Fire phone: Firefly can also recognize phone numbers and email addresses printed on posters or written on scraps of paper, allowing users to call them or save them to their address book without typing them in. Firefly has a lot of cool potential in part because Amazon is allowing outside software developers to tap into its underlying technology. Amazon is also throwing in two free services - a year's subscription to its Prime streaming music and video offering and free photo storage on its servers of all the pictures users take with the Fire. So, amid the flurry of cool features, there’s still that series of golden threads binding the consumer to Mama Amazon. The Fire also comes with Amazon's Mayday feature. Users needing help with their phone can push the virtual Mayday button and be connected quickly with an Amazon customer support representative. So, Apple’s Genius Bar finds itself in a competitor’s feature-set that is more cost effective for the provider and, perhaps, much easier for the consumer. Innovative - and not solely on the technical plane. In my opinion, these are savvy product decisions that are in league with what I think Amazon's product strategy should be: build the Amazon retail business.
More Cool Stuff: You can activate Firefly by pressing a button on the side of the Fire. The app identifies songs, TV shows and movies just by analyzing their content and comparing them to an internal database (just like Shazaam or IMDB). It can identify products by their packaging or by their bar codes, allowing users to instantly check their prices and order them via Amazon.
The Dynamic Perspective feature is a touch-less gesture system combined with a kind of 3D-viewing effect. With Dynamic Perspective, users can access menus, shortcuts or additional information by simply tilting the screen left or right, rather than by swiping across it. It is cool stuff, particularly useful in a cellphone camera, but probably not as useful as the other stuff which actually furthers Amazon’s strategy by offering unique value-add for their customers.
Meanwhile, Amazon has hobbled Fire by the failures in product strategy that offset or overshadow the wins:
1. Currently, the phone is only available via AT&T. While locking consumers into a service provider of Amazon's choosing (and one so notoriously vile in the eyes of the customer), Amazon may have shot themselves in the foot. This is the same price as the leading phones on the market from Apple and Samsung. Unless you can come out successfully swinging for the fences on your rookie debut…what the hell are you doing trying to compete with Apple and Samsung in the high-end, full featured smartphone market?
2. The phone is $200 WITH a 2 year contract (with no deal being offered to make that cellular contract more appealing than by offering the phone for $200).…something like $600 if you got it unlocked (and just who will be your carrier in that event?)
3. The phone’s operating system is a variant of Google’s Android known as Fire OS….but it DOES NOT have access to Google Play. That’s right…you’re using the Android OS, with all its foibles and without one of its primary advantages. That had to be Amazon’s decision, not Google’s (likely so that Amazon could swing customers to upcoming Amazon Prime offerings…which currently do not exist!). Hmmm…. Oh yeah….those two leading phones I mentioned cost about the same as the Amazon Fire. With no access to Google Play and the Google apps…you got a jump start on your software technology stack…but at a suicidal price.
In my book, these are three bad product strategy choices.
So, let’s review: good phone, with some strong features…but not a knock-out blow to compete with the high-end smartphone offerings currently available. Only one carrier, priced like the top-rated smartphones…oh, but without critical things like access to the app store people want to use for their OS. Great features that are a good start in being the individual’s “always-on” portal to Amazon, but not priced like such a beast. It’s a good first offering, but awfully late as an entrant that expects to survive such product strategy mistakes.