I have wanted to write this post ever since I found this picture of Jeff Bezos announcing the Fire Phone.
As a fan of Amazon’s approach to Product, I've spent lots of time diving into their various products. Their strategy is anchored in the customer. And for each product (successful or failed), you can see the customer at the core of the experience.
The Fire Phone is the product that breaks this paradigm. It was the rare occasion where Amazon built something that wasn’t customer focused. Sure, it was intended to be purchased by customers. But it wasn’t built with a customer mindset. Unsurprisingly it failed and failed hard.
What Went Wrong?
If you watch any interview with Jeff Bezos, you will see his obsession with customers. Amazon does everything with its customers in mind. It doesn’t matter if the product is a book or a streaming service. But when it came time to build the Fire Phone, Amazon lost sight of the customer.
I had a hard time finding evidence that Amazon talked to customers before they decided to build a phone. You would assume they spent time understanding customers' needs. Asking basic questions like: "What features does the phone need, what would you be willing to pay, do you want to buy a phone from Amazon, etc?". Maybe they did this, and it is not well documented. But most sources I saw online, concluded that Amazon simply assumed they knew what was needed.
In a way, you can’t fault them. They proved they could do hardware. They had a big winner (in a similar form factor) with the Kindle. But it turns out that what customers look for in an e-reader, is not the same as what they look for in something they use to run their life.
Where it Missed the Mark
One of the most notable issues with the Fire Phone was that it ran a forked version of Android called Fire OS. The operating system did not have access to the Google Play Store. This meant it was missing many of the apps that customers expect a phone to have. You couldn’t get things as basic as Google Maps. And apps that keep customers glued to their phones, like Snapchat, were not available on Fire OS.
While it lacked a lot of the standards, it did introduce some innovations. It featured something Dynamic Perspective, which created a 3D effect on the screen. This was cool but didn’t make the experience of using a phone any better. There was also a feature called Firefly which let you scan barcodes or objects. But doing so led you to the Amazon.com page for that item so you could buy it. It turned out that customers didn’t want their phones being turned into portable, sales machines. While some of these technologies live on in other forms today, they were not things customers wanted in a phone.
Despite, all the things wrong with the phone, there may have still been people who wanted one. In that case, there was still friction. The Fire Phone was priced similarly to other flagship phones. Which meant you had to fork over as much as you would pay for an iPhone or Galaxy. For that high price, you got the privilege of testing out a first-generation phone. Even if the price didn’t turn you off, there was one last barrier. The phone was available exclusively on AT&T. Apple had successfully used the exclusive carrier strategy years earlier. But that had been done because Apple had no other option, smartphones were still new and unproven at that point. When the Fire Phone launched, customers expected to get the phone they wanted on the carrier they preferred.
Why Did They Do It?
Amazon built a product for which they may or may not have gauged customer interest and need. They loaded it with features that didn’t make sense. And then put barriers in the way of getting the phone. This all seems very “un-Amazon”, so why did they do it?
Despite the lack of value for customers, there was a lot of potential value for Amazon. Here are just a few reasons they may have wanted to create the Fire Phone:
- Expand Hardware Offerings: With the Kindle, Amazon had shown it could do consumer hardware. If they could build one best-selling piece of hardware, it stood to reason that they could do it again. And having their own hardware would give them more control over the customer experience. They would have greater control over integrations and could fine-tune the mobile experience.
- Grow the Amazon Ecosystem: Amazon has a broad digital ecosystem. This spans e-commerce, digital content, cloud storage, and more. A phone would make it easier for customers to access these other offerings. Things like Firefly were intentionally designed to drive customers to buy more from Amazon. The phone also opened the door to building more mobile-first offerings going forward.
- Stand Up to Competition: Amazon competes with Google and Apple in many areas. But in the world of mobile, they are at the mercy of their competitors. Amazon’s competition gets to dictate how customers experience their products on mobile. The Fire phone would allow Amazon to claw back some of that control. And it gave them a shot to steal some of the mobile market shares.
- Data Collection: Amazon is always looking for ways to get more data on customers. The more they understand about their customers, the more they can customize offerings, and the more customers will buy. The Fire Phone would have put a data collection tool in customers' pockets. This would have enabled Amazon to learn even more about them.
There were a lot of reasons to create a phone. But looking through this list none of them are customer focused or beneficial to customers.
It’s Not All Bad
Even though the Fire Phone failed, the work that led to it wasn’t totally wasted. Some of the functionality and technology developed for the phone was repurposed inside of Alexa. Amazon has continued to innovate in the hardware space. Bringing things like Fire TV and Kindle Fire to market. And they have refocused on customer-obsessed offerings, like expanding the Prime membership.
Most of all they learned from the failure. There are a lot of things PMs can take away from the Fire Phone story. But the one thing we will all face is failure. Our job is to reduce the chance of failure (by staying close to customers). And then when we do fail, we learn from it and come back better.