The Kindle vs. The Fire Phone

Responding to Dustin Curtis on Amazon's echo chamber.

November 10, 2014

My brother Max sent me this piece by Dustin Curtis on why Amazon Has No Taste.

Dustin writes that:

"[A]s Amazon has released more and more pieces of junk over the past couple of years, I’ve lost faith. The Fire Phone, for example, is not just bad; it’s so terrible that it’s dishonest of Amazon to sell it to anyone. There are zero people on Earth who would be better off owning a Fire Phone instead of an Android phone. I’m not exaggerating–go find one to play with, and you’ll understand. The hardware is abysmal and the software is embarrassing. You would have to be delusional as a manager to launch it and tell people that it is a well-made phone.”

Why is the Fire Phone such a disaster, and most of the other Amazon devices like the Kindle Fire “pieces of junk”.  Dustin blames Amazon’s insularity.  

"It’s an echo chamber. They make a product, they market the product on Amazon.com, they sell the product to Amazon.com customers, they get a false sense of success, the customer puts the product in a drawer and never uses it, and then Amazon moves on to the next product.”

What Dustin does not address is why the Kindle e-readers are such a glaring exception to Amazon’s hardware woes. My Kindle Paperwhite is a superb reading device. A pleasure to read with.  A gadget that has dramatically increased how many books I read (and buy).  

The reason that the Kindle Paperwhite (and from I read the Kindle Voyage) is so good comes down to two explanations: persistence and the platform.  

Persistence:  Amazon’s first Kindle was astoundingly ugly. They iterated on the device until they got it right. Amazon’s persistence means that it would be a mistake to count Bezos and company out on the smartphone war quite yet.  The Fire Phone was a disaster, but I think that Amazon will learn from its mistakes. What Amazon should have done was release a simpler phone with both a heavily subsidized monthly plan bundled with Amazon digital content.  

Platform:  The reason that the Kindle Paperwhite is so great is only partly due to the actual device.  The real value of the Kindle is how easy and affordable Amazon makes digital book buying.  The Kindle would be of very little value without the affordable e-books on Amazon.com.  I would consider a Fire Phone if it came bundled with an Audible Platinum subscription.  Amazon needs to dramatically improve the Kindle Unlimited program, as the e-book and Audible collection that comes with the $9.99 monthly price is atrocious, but a better Kindle Unlimited bundled with a Fire Phone would also be compelling.   Amazon should have aimed its phone first at book lovers.  Or college students, as Amazon could bundle digital textbooks with the Fire Phone.   

The persistence and platform advantaged that Amazon has relied on with the Kindle leads me to have more confidence in the future of Amazon’s hardware.  Give the Fire Phone 3 years.  

None of this makes Dustin wrong.  He may be less sanguine about the future of Amazon than I am (apparently he sold his Amazon stock), but he is correct about Amazon’s insularity.  We may not agree with everything that Apple, Google or Microsoft do, but at least they show up on campus to talk.  You might say that Amazon doesn’t sell to higher ed like Apple, Google or Microsoft - but that misses the connection between higher ed, books, and reading.  What has Amazon done to connect their platforms, products and content with tomorrow’s book buyers (today’s college students)?  Yes, books are just a tiny part of Amazon, but books are a prime connector to the Amazon ecosystem.  What would Amazon need to do to make the Fire Phone the smartphone of choice for college students?  That is a discussion that would be good to have, but it is not clear that there is anyone at Amazon interested in having that chat.

What do you think of the future of Amazon’s hardware?

What would you want to talk about with Amazon if they wanted to talk with you?


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