Personal Tech|Looking for a Design Behind Amazon's Devices


Amazon introduces new gadgets the way a guerrilla army prepares for attack: unsteadily at first, and then with unexpected ferocity.


The company usually begins by putting out feelers to test the market. In 2007, it started selling its first e-reader, the Kindle, a device that went for $399 and was as ugly as a naked mole rat. But Jeff Bezos, Amazon's chief executive, is known for patience and a willingness to experiment. At some point, because Amazon's data showed that Kindle owners purchased more Kindle books than they did print books, the company began selling the e-readers at cost, expecting to make a profit on e-book sales. That set in motion a path to domination. Today, with its latest high-end reader, the Voyage, offering a display that looks just as good as a hardcover, Amazon has vanquished just about every competing e-reader, and the Kindle has become the most triumphant and menacing brand in publishing.


Amazon now looks to be preparing a full-scale ground invasion of the rest of the gadget landscape. In addition to a new Kindle reader, this year the company entered two new device categories, and it expanded the rest of its hardware lineup.


Yet its strategy appears puzzling, with a lineup of tablets and other devices that sound fantastic in theory, but often fall short of greatness in real-world use.



Amazon now makes four different kinds of devices. There are dedicated e-readers, multipurpose tablets and, starting this year, a TV streaming device and a smartphone, the Fire Phone. Just this week, Amazon introduced another streaming machine, the Fire Stick TV, a $39 gadget that is the size of a USB stick and promises to turn your television into an Amazon-powered video service. When you count each variation of each device, you find that Amazon, the ostensible retailer, makes more hardware products than Google does, and almost as much stuff as Apple.


Spending time with its devices, as I did recently, offers a peek into Amazon's otherwise opaque soul. The hardware shows off Amazon's strengths in the continuing tech war between it and Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Among these strengths: Like a true retailer, Amazon appreciates the attractiveness of clever pricing strategies, and of giving customers devices that feel expensive, but aren't. Amazon, more than most rivals, also understands the value of packaging customer service with its hardware. Its high-end tablets include Mayday, a system that instantly summons a live video call with an agent who can answer most of your how-to questions - which is one of the best features on any device by any company.


But Amazon's devices also highlight its deep weaknesses. The company seems congenitally blind to the charms of hardware and software design, and it has not yet managed to attract enough partners, including app developers, to expand the utility of its devices. It was the lack of apps, among other flaws, that doomed the Fire Phone, the device Amazon began selling with tremendous fanfare in July. Amazon disclosed last week that it was sitting on $83 million in unsold Fire Phones, and would be taking a $170 million write-down on that program.


These shortcomings strain the case for Amazon's devices. If you are mostly interested in entertainment, and if you are looking for a good deal, it could be a good idea to take a chance on Amazon's ecosystem, especially its tablets. As I wrote last February, Amazon remains the best place online to buy books, movies, music and other media, because content from Amazon works seamlessly across different kinds of devices. Amazon's tablets are also attractive if you are in the market for low-priced devices for your children.


But if you are looking for more - more flexibility and utility in your gadgets, better design, and primarily assurance that your device will work with whatever great new hardware or software that comes along next - look elsewhere.


Consider the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, the svelte machine that sits at the head of Amazon's tablet lineup. The HDX has three main strengths: It's very thin, it's two ounces lighter than Apple's new iPad Air 2, and it has a brilliant screen. This year Amazon blessed the HDX 8.9 with a faster processor than was available in last year's model, better graphics capabilities and a surround-sound system made by Dolby. At $379, the HDX is also $120 cheaper than Apple's latest large-screen iPad. Amazon also makes a seven-inch HDX that it sells for $179, but that device remains unchanged from last year's model.



On paper, the HDX 8.9 sounds like a great deal. But using it is kind of meh. The HDX sure is thin and light, but because it is made out of a plasticky magnesium alloy - rather than the brushed aluminum of the iPad - it feels a bit rubbery and cheap. More than that, it's undistinguished, a generic black slab. It looks more like a tablet designed by a minimalist robot than one thought up by a human.


But the biggest problem is what to do with this device. As they become squeezed in our lives between bigger phones and better laptops, tablets have lately been suffering an identity crisis; there doesn't seem to be much to do on a high-powered tablet that you couldn't do better on a phone or computer. That problem plagues Apple's new iPads, but it's even more pronounced on a tablet like the HDX, which does not have a great bank of the latest apps to give it extra utility. As a result I mostly found myself watching Amazon's streaming movies and surfing the Web. In this way, the HDX 8.9 compares unfavorably with last year's Apple iPad Air, which is now on sale for $399 - $20 more than the HDX, but worth the price in access to a great deal more apps.


Amazon's lower-end Kindle tablets offer a much more compelling case. The company makes six-inch and seven-inch Fire HD tablets that start at $99 and $139; for $50 more, either size comes in a ' kid's edition,' which includes a cute rubber case, a one-year subscription to Amazon's selection of children's movies and TV shows, and a two-year, no-questions-asked replacement guarantee. There's that clever pricing strategy.


Like the HDX, the Fire HDs are boxy and appear generic, and they do not have access to the latest apps. But for that price, it's hard to quibble with form over function. For people whose only interest in tablets is to consume media, these tablets are great deals. They are pretty speedy, they have passable interfaces, and if you are into watching TV shows and playing games, they sure get the job done.


What is Amazon's endgame with all these devices? Mr. Bezos has always said that his mission, with hardware, is to delight users with devices that are priced fairly. The devices also contribute to Mr. Bezos's famous 'flywheel,' the virtuous cycle by which greater customer satisfaction leads to more sellers in his store, which leads to more products, greater efficiencies, lower prices and, in turn, more customers.


'Everything is about getting that flywheel spinning, and it isn't necessarily about building a big and successful tablet business of their own,' said Benedict Evans, an analyst who works at the investment firm Andreessen Horowitz and has studied Amazon closely. 'Whether they actually drive meaningful commerce isn't entirely clear, but Amazon is rigorously focused on data, so if they're doing it, you can trust that there must be data that justifies it.'


And if this year's devices don't take off, you can bet that Mr. Bezos will try a slightly different tack next year.


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