Please allow me to be the last to tell you that Amazon unveiled a phone, and among the first to tell you why no one will buy it.
It’s not because the Fire phone is packed with a range of what can only be called parlor tricks–that is, 3-D interface gewgaws of limited utility. Nor is it because the most interesting thing about the phone–a button that lets you buy anything you see in real life on Amazon–is probably more useful for Amazon than for its customers, and already exists on other phones anyway.
The central problems with the Fire, the factors that will kill its sales as surely as they have held Windows Phone to single digit market share in North America, are these:
1. People are loath to switch from the phones they already have, and in the process abandon all the apps and media they’ve bought.
2. The North American market for smartphones–and especially the market for high-end smartphones like the Fire — is heavily saturated, which means there are hardly any new users out there who might adopt the Fire as their first phone.
3. Fire can’t access the existing pool of Android apps. It’s missing critical ones like Uber (Bezos says it’s coming) and Snapchat (no word on when it will appear).
The "app gap"
Taking these in reverse order, let’s start with the “app gap” between Fire and its competitors.
The reason Amazon’s phone has about a tenth as many apps as the iPhone or Android phones is that, though it’s based on Android, Fire OS is heavily modified. For this sin, Google has banned it from accessing the Google Play store, the official repository of Android apps.
Amazon is betting that developers will close this “app gap” quickly, and give the Fire all the capabilities its competitors have. But developers won’t jump on board with Fire OS unless people switch to it–and they probably won’t. It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem of building an ecosystem of software around any particular piece of hardware.
As Damon Darlin succinctly outlines in the New York Times, switching from one phone to another is a frightening and difficult enterprise even under the best of circumstances. There are all those contacts and photos to be transferred (or, more likely, lost) and then there’s the not-trivial matter of learning a whole new interface.
Add to this the fact that the US smartphone market appears to be nearly saturated. The market-research firm IDC projects that in 2014, growth in the North American smartphone market will slow to single digits.
In other words, barring the usual churn of young people entering the market, pretty much every American who is going to get a smartphone already has declared their loyalty to either Google or Apple, and both are working like hell to keep people locked into their ecosystems, getting us to buy media and apps that work only on Android or iOS.
All together, these are a major problem for what appears to be Amazon’s larger (or perhaps backup) strategy for Fire: get people to equate Amazon’s services with a particular service, by way of a piece of hardware. It worked with books — Kindle is an object, a marketplace and more or less synonymous with e-books. It worked slightly less well with tablets — does anyone really equate the company’s tablets with streaming media?
And it won’t work at all with phones.
Fire’s big gimmick, the “Firefly” button that turns any real-world object into a “buy” button for its equivalent on Amazon, already exists in the Amazon app for iPhone. (It’s called “Flow.”) If we were reliving the history of the Kindle, the Fire would convince some people to bind themselves exclusively to Amazon’s services, and would have even more utility as an advertisement for those same services in the form of apps on Android and iPhone.
But without adoption of the Fire in the first place, it can’t succeed even as an advertisement for Amazon’s attempt to turn the real world into one big Amazon shopping cart.
Christopher Mims is The Wall Street Journal’s technology columnist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him at @mims on Twitter.