Where the Fire Phone sits in Amazon’s strategy

In the run-up to Amazon’s Fire Phone announcement, and especially as it was announced, I saw a wide range of responses from bloggers and others that seemed to fundamentally misunderstand where the Fire Phone sits in Amazon’s strategy. So I thought I’d have a go at explaining where I think it sits, based on my understanding of where Amazon makes its money.

The first critical thing is to understand the relationship between Prime and e-commerce in Amazon’s strategy. Some people seem to think everything Amazon does is to drive Prime memberships but that’s actually backwards. Prime memberships are a means to an end and not an end in themselves. Prime memberships bring in $99 a year in revenue, but they likely cost Amazon much more than that. Just providing the Netflix-like Prime Instant Video feature probably costs $50-60 per active user per year. Now, add the quasi-Spotify Prime Music service Amazon announced last week and it’s likely spending another $2-3 per month or $20-30 per year there. For Kindle owners, there’s the Kindle Lending Library as part of Prime too, which has a cost of its own that’s harder to quantify. Now look at shipping, which Amazon subsidizes to the extent its net cost of shipping (i.e. shipping revenue including part of Prime revenue minus shipping costs) is equivalent to its entire marketing budget:

 

Amazon shipping and marketing costsPrime is likely a loss leader on the pure basis of what Amazon charges for it minus the direct costs from just Prime Instant Video, Prime Music and shipping. That’s key to understanding where Prime sits in Amazon’s strategy: it is not, itself, a money maker. In fact, it was losing so much money Amazon recently had to increase the price from $79 to $99 to better cover the costs of all the freebies it’s now throwing in.

Of course, Prime doesn’t end there – the free shipping drives two sorts of behaviors:

  • People buy more stuff, because the net cost is more competitive when shipping is free – the obvious effect
  • People also buy more stuff because of the psychological effect of having paid for something and wanting to realize as much value from it as possible.

It works, too. As RBC Capital Markets demonstrated in a report a few days ago, Prime subscribers spend significantly more than non-Prime subscribers:

amazon-prime-spending-chart

Look at the amounts involved. On an annualized basis, over 90% of Prime members are spending upwards of $100 per year, over 80% of them are spending over $200 per year, and well over half are spending over $400 per year. That’s far more than they’re spending on Prime, which of course is loss-making as we saw above. So that’s the real value of Prime: it drives sales of other goods and services from Amazon.

Now think about where the Fire Phone fits within that strategy: the answer is simple:

  • The primary objective is to drive that difference between Prime using (and now Fire Phone-using) customers and non-Prime customers even higher
  • A secondary objective is to drive more Prime membership, hence the free annual membership Amazon is giving away with the phone. Without this deal, it’s very likely 100% of the people buying the phone would be existing Prime customers, and this deal (which is apparently temporary and promotional) may drive that down to 90% or so.

The fundamental role of the Fire Phone, though, is this: to serve as the obvious choice of phones for what I call “Amazon people” just as the iPhone was the obvious phone for Apple people, and Android devices are natural choices for Google people. By Amazon, Apple and Google “people” what I mean is those people who identify with those brands so strongly they have invested significantly in those ecosystems, and strongly prefer new products and services from those companies more so than from the others. These customers likely already have Kindles, Kindle Fires and Fire TVs in many cases, and the smartphone is a natural extension of those things.

Once in their hands, of course, the Fire Phone will serve to significantly reduce the friction involved in seeing a desired object and buying it from your mobile device. As I said in a piece last week:

Imagine what’s possible when Amazon controls the whole smartphone experience: a dedicated app on the homescreen (perhaps even triggered by a hardware button) which launches an app for quickly adding things to your Amazon wish list or cart, via barcode or image capture and OCR. The friction involved in translating a real-world discovery of an appealing product into an Amazon purchase would be greatly reduced.

That is, of course, exactly what Amazon did announce today, and the Firefly features went even further than I suggested by recognizing all kinds of objects (and it is, indeed, triggered by a dedicated hardware button).

That’s the role of the Fire Phone: to cement the relationship Amazon’s users have with the company and to ultimately drive more sales in Amazon’s core business, which is e-commerce. It gives it a much better stronghold in the emerging m-commerce market and allows Amazon to go from a useful showrooming solution to a mobile buying solution with these users. Of course, it only makes sense Amazon would extend many of these features to other devices too through Firefly apps on iOS and Android proper, and I imagine we may well see that emerge in the coming months.

What the Fire Phone isn’t, and was never going to be, is an attempt by Amazon to achieve world domination in smartphones. It isn’t intended to sell tens of millions of devices, and it isn’t intended to make Amazon tons of money from device sales. With distribution limited to just AT&T in the US today, it’s a given it won’t achieve that level of sales. With the target market best thought of as a fraction of the US Prime base, it’s clear it will be a significant achievement if Amazon sells 1-2 million phones in the first year.

Which brings us to the price. At similar levels to premium smartphones such as the iPhone 5S and Samsung Galaxy S5, the Fire Phone is not the disruptive entry into the smartphone market many were hoping for from Amazon. So why did it price the phone at such a high level? I was as surprised by anyone Amazon didn’t subsidize it heavily or find some other way to disrupt the business model for buying phones, but in hindsight there are at least two good reasons.

Firstly, phones aren’t content consumption devices to anything like the extent e-readers and tablets are. Kindles exist solely to read Amazon ebooks, and as such Amazon can afford to subsidize them, because they know these devices are effectively just storefronts for ebooks. The Kindle Fire tablets are consumption devices, but they’re also far more open than Kindles, and consumers can use whatever content services they want on them, even though they’re Amazon-centric. As such, the subsidy on these devices is smaller. The Fire TV is similar to tablets, and is subsidized at a similar level as a result. Smartphones are the least content-centric device Amazon has launched, and even though Amazon’s content applications and services will be front and center, they’ll mostly be those Amazon bundles into Prime anyway, meaning there will be very little additional revenue from content bought through these devices. Yes, the hope is – as outlined above – Amazon will sell more goods to these customers because of the Firefly feature, but that’s a much less proven business case. It’s entirely possible many customers will never use it. As such, Amazon can’t afford to subsidize it in the same way as its other devices.

Secondly, smartphones are a very different product category from any of the others Amazon makes, in that very few people pay full price for them. This was one of the biggest boons for Apple when it began offering the iPhone – carriers paid for roughly two thirds of the price, and AT&T is doing the same for the Fire Phone, reducing the nominal $650 price to $200 on a 2-year contract. As such, Amazon doesn’t need to subsidize it, because AT&T will. On the other hand, AT&T also offers (and perhaps Amazon will in time too) an option to pay for the device in monthly installments, at $27 a pop. As this data from CIRP shows, consumers are terrible at calculating the true cost of owning a device when they pay for it this way. So perhaps Amazon’s calculus was it didn’t matter as much what the nominal price was because no one will ever see it.

The big question now is whether the strategic rationale behind the Fire Phone – which is solid in theory – will play out in practice. The irony is Amazon likely doesn’t know, and we will likely never know, because Amazon doesn’t ever share any concrete data on how any of its devices sell. If the phone is still being sold a year from now, and especially if it gets a successor, then we’ll know it has done its job for Amazon. If it gets quietly discontinued, then it will have failed. Interestingly, the premium price takes a lot of the risk out of the equation – at those prices, margins on the device itself could be decent if it sells any sort of decent number.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

1,306 thoughts on “Where the Fire Phone sits in Amazon’s strategy”

  1. “The big question now is whether the strategic rationale behind the Fire Phone – which is solid in theory – will play out in practice.”

    I agree, it’s a bit of an experiment. But what Amazon venture ever makes money in the first year? Their method seems to be to subsidize new products, new countries, or new markets with the profits from ongoing parts of the business, rather than make big profits.

    “The fundamental role of the Fire Phone, though, is this: to serve as the obvious choice of phones for what I call “Amazon people” just as the iPhone was the obvious phone for Apple people, and Android devices are natural choices for Google people.”

    Yes, I think Amazon understands that this phone is going to serve their own high value customers. I haven’t seen the phone, so I can’t say if Amazon explicitly designed it with these people in mind.

    However I do not believe that Apple has ever designed their phones for Apple power users. The same is true for Android. With phone design, both Apple and Google are looking for new users more than trying to satisfy their high value users. This seems like a difference in Amazon’s current phone strategy compared to Apple and Google, rather than the similarity you suggest.

    1. I didn’t suggest it was a similar strategy. I suggested that people will buy the phone for similar reasons. That’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

      1. Discussing who the phones appeal to rather than who they are built for. I understand now, and agree.

        “If it gets quietly discontinued, then it will have failed. Interestingly…” Yes. Amazon can afford to be more casual about phones than Samsung or Apple are.

  2. There are a couple of comparisons to the iPhone that I think misstate history, and limit your understanding of why the Fire Phone will/not succeed:

    “…just as the iPhone was the obvious phone for Apple people…”

    This was maybe true for hardcore Mac fans in the first year of the iPhone, but of course the iPhone had to become the obvious choice for Windows users, and for non-PC-using people for the iPhone to have taken off so dramatically.

    Windows Phone was meant to be the obvious choice for the 95% of computer-using people, but it has been a dramatic failure because that purpose was not what prospective customers had in mind when they went looking for a smartphone. Personally, as a frequent Amazon user (a $250 order last night), I can’t imagine dealing with actual shopping (comparing brands, models, prices, sellers) on a tiny screen, and already have the showrooming capability in my apps. So there’s a real question: “what’s in it for the user, even a frequent Amazon customer, in terms of smartphone capabilities?”

    “…very few people pay full price for them. This was one of the biggest boons for Apple when it began offering the iPhone – carriers paid for roughly two thirds of the price, and AT&T is doing the same for the Fire Phone…”

    Actually, this program started shortly after the iPhone was introduced (apparently, in 2008). Besides the obvious perception issue you note, two other concerns were that (1) AT&T wanted the iPhone as a way of building its user base and reducing churn; buying the phone up-front didn’t lock in users (and indeed, many defected). Also (2), anti-trust concerns were raised about preventing users from using their devices on alternate carriers; tying them to a contract that paid for the phone over time, versus forcing them to use AT&T, was a workaround.

    This issue is relevant to the Fire because it exposes AT&T’s interest here, in capturing new revenues. Very likely, most Fire users are existing smartphone users (and the most valuable ones, very likely iPhone users), so AT&T might be hoping to capture VZ customers (I’d guess VZ loyalty is too high for much of that), so AT&T is probably participating in the up-front cost, rather significantly. Since most customers need to see physical product (especially people who showroom), Amazon needed to have a partner willing to bear the marketing expenses and AT&T was obviously the choice.

    Interesting comparison to how badly VZ got burned with the Kin — and how quickly they dropped it — and the meme that somehow carriers suffer under the subsidy model… here AT&T pretty clearly forced it to happen, otherwise we’d have been more likely to see the more typical Amazon selling model.

    1. Walt – you’re forgetting about the iPod. The Mac’s market share has always been small, but the iPod turned many, many more people into “Apple people” than the Mac ever did. Back at its peak the iPod sold as many as 20 million units in the fourth quarter, and over 50 million a year. As I said above, it’s far from the only reason people buy iPhones, but my research suggests this kind of association with an ecosystem is a strong driver.

      1. “you’re forgetting about the iPod.”

        Well, no, not actually. If buying an iPod in the previous years made somebody an “Apple person,” he or she would’ve been a prime candidate for one of those bubblicious iMacs or perhaps the G4 model with the half-basketball base.

        Those products sold well enough, but there was no surge in them despite good-enough critical reception. Also, the iPhone itself was a bit shaky out of the gate, taking a couple of years before people realized what an indispensable gizmo it was.

        Fire enters the market with the role of a smartphone much better defined, but also the opportunity for customers to go down a checklist of features. I predict the parallax feature will NOT be as amazing to would-be customers as the video clip suggests (manifesting more of a “huh.” than a “wow! Look at that!”) and that when people ask how to work voice control or “whatever they call their version of Siri,” there’ll be some “really?!?” moments. I am also not terribly optimistic about how well the Nokia maps will stand up to the level of quality that Google, and possibly soon Apple, have.

        I’m pretty committed to the idea that a strong brand stands for something, and that the Kindle brand stands for reading, while the Amazon brand stands for efficient shopping. From the early reactions, Fire stands for a bit of a jumbled UX and some sharp deficiencies vis=à-vis its two competitors, Samsung and Apple.

        Apple may stand for cool and innovative, but it’s one thing for teens or other music-loving people to shell out $150 for an iPod, quite another that they spend $2000 on a two-year cellular contract, which is why the iPhone wasn’t an instant WOW! Likewise, I don’t see the efficient shopping brand having much in the way of coattails for that same wireless contract.

        1. The Mac did grow much more strongly after the launch of the iPod than it was before. It’s not all attributable to the iPod – Macs got better at the same time. But some of that was no doubt attributable to the fact that people having their first Apple experience with the iPod went on to want that same experience in a computer.

          I also don’t think the iPhone was “shaky out of the gate” – it was a phenomenally expensive device in its category that didn’t do several of the things people thought a smartphone should do in the beginning, and had very limited distribution. But it grew incredibly rapidly from inception despite these things. The cellphone contract point you raise in your last paragraph was essentially irrelevant to the iPhone purchase – the $500 up-front cost certainly wasn’t. That, of course, came down over time.

          I think the Amazon brand stands for good value across a lot of different categories, but most of those things are currently tied to devices other than a smartphone. The big question is how many people actually will translate their affinity for Amazon as a brand into a smartphone purchase. We know that 60,000 people applied to attend the launch event, and we know Amazon has somewhere north of 20 million Prime subscribers. The number we’re interested in is somewhere between those two – people who not only use Amazon regularly but have a strong personal affinity for the Amazon brand that goes beyond just using it a lot. It’s more than 60,000 but it’s certainly not 20 million. I don’t think Amazon knows how many there are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few hundred thousand people that eventually fall into that category. The big question is whether there will be more than that.

  3. Might Amazon’s plan be more a stratagem than strategy in its deviousness, i.e., dependent upon buyers’ poor calculating skills, “consumers are terrible at calculating the true cost of owning a device when they pay for it this way.”

    It is difficult to understand Amazon’s gamble. Most dedicated Amazon phone owners would likely, as you state, already be tied into Amazon’s plan via their other Amazon device. The present cost is “apparently temporary and promotional” so I think I understand that the aim is to garner new dedicated customers asap, not to necessarily sell phones to the collective (immediately, that is).

    However, the design may be a brilliant strategy to prime the dedicated, possibly addicted shoppers even more, ones with sufficient income sources who do not like to mingle with the rabble, (I am being a little whimsical, but who knows the psychological value of addicted Amazon shoppers.) If there is a large group of very strangely addicted internet shoppers, is there an Amazon Anonymous group similar to Gambler’s Anonymous, or a need for one? (Stranger things have happened. 🙂

    So many ifs. Maybe Bezos little plan just went too far too fast and the brakes did indeed failed. You do seem to indicate stock growth has stalled.

    Too many ifs I suspect. But if Bezos is gambling, what a gamble, win or lose. What a show to watch.

      1. You don’t need one. But if you had one, it would be significantly easier to buy things from Amazon. Firefly isn’t the draw, it’s the benefit for Amazon.

        1. See…here’s when I’m bewildered by the value propositions offered by companies. If I’m buying the phone, it has to offer me a great value. Great value to the company, beyond the price I pay for the device, is none of my concern.

          If they are making it easier for me to spend money on them, with future shopping, they really need to sweeten the pot. A lot!

          1. Which is why everyone was expecting a heavily subsidized device. The big question is whether any of the other stuff is compelling enough. I suspect for some Amazon fans it will be. But not as much as it would have been with more aggressive pricing.

          2. Well, if the Fire Phone makes it even easier for people to buy things they need anyway, if that feature is really slick, that could have a lot of value for some people.

          3. More aggressive pricing at what cost, though? two thirds of their Prime members are the ones I think they are targeting, that spend over $100. EVen of their non-Prime users, that is about 1/3 of those (which is probably larger in quantity than the two thirds of Prime).

            If they are using Stew Leonard’s as their model, they are targeting the right customers, right? Stew Leonard’s always pulls customers from their check out lines for their focus groups who have carts over-flowing or tote two carts. Those are the people they consider their real customers, the ones already motivated to spend money at their store. The one’s already pre-disposed to spend money at an establishment, those are the one’s who will likely be willing to spend more money rather than the curiosity shopper or the occasional shopper who probably does most of their shopping elsewhere anyway.

            The ones who don’t spend a lot of money at Amazon are most likely already spending as much money there as the will at this point. Dropping the price of the phone to attract them will lower their margins and likely not really increase business from those customers.

            Joe

          4. Well, I did discuss the possible reasoning for the pricing in the piece – I think it’s much more of a gamble for Amazon to discount / subsidize this device than Kindle e-readers or even Kindle Fire tablets. It’s a calculation that’s based on many assumptions and could easily backfire. I suspect they’ll let the market teach them a few things over the coming months and then they’ll be in a much better position to determine future releases (if any).

          5. Yes. Sorry I did not mean to imply that you hadn’t covered this. Just going with the flow of the conversation.

            Joe

  4. “By Amazon, Apple and Google “people” what I mean is those people who identify with those brands so strongly they have invested significantly in those ecosystems, and strongly prefer new products and services from those companies more so than from the others.”

    I have to disagree with this. It would seem that the majority of Android device users are on mid to low end devices and are not very aware of Android as a brand or platform. So I don’t see the strong brand connection. Same goes for Apple, aren’t a heck of a lot of iPhone users new to Apple? I would bet a good number of people have only one Apple product, an iPhone. Also, to say people buy Apple because they identify with the brand is, in my opinion, a misunderstanding of why people buy Apple products and why people are so satisfied with Apple products. The driving factor is quality, Apple gear works, word of mouth gets around and more people buy Apple gear.

    Now, back to Amazon, I buy from Amazon because it’s easy and convenient. Does the Fire Phone improve that experience enough for me (or anyone else) to switch from my current smartphone? I doubt it. My gut tells me the Amazon phone isn’t going to do very well.

    I think among a subset of geeks, perhaps the behaviour you describe actually happens, but in the normal consumer market I don’t see it. And geeks just aren’t a large enough group to move the needle, not anymore, computing has gone mainstream (finally) and left the geeks behind.

    1. The behavior I’m describing is exactly what you see among many consumers – I’ve done a lot of research into why people buy phones and although it’s far from the only reason why people buy iPhones and Androids it’s a strong driver in both cases. And you’re misunderstanding what it means to be an “Amazon person” – it’s not enough just to use Amazon a lot, you actually have to have a strong brand affinity for Amazon.

      1. I suppose what I’m saying is while I agree that ‘Amazon people’, ‘Google people’, and ‘Apple people’ do exist, it isn’t a large group. Heck, I buy lots of Apple gear and I wouldn’t say I have a strong brand affinity for Apple, I just want gear that works well. Although my experience over the years with Apple gear working well and delivering value does make it very likely I will buy more from Apple, as long as the experience remains satisfactory. So in that way the brand connection is strong, but it’s a connection with actual quality. Maybe we’re saying the same thing in different ways.

        I’d be interested in what data you have that points to the conclusion that a majority of Android users purchased their device because of a strong brand affinity for Google. I’m not sure the majority of Android users even know Google has anything to do with Android. I hear people talking about owning “a Samsung” or “a Galaxy” or “an HTC”, and so on.

        I’m sure you’re right that people who are strongly connected to Amazon are a good market for the Fire Phone, I just question how large that group is, and whether the Fire Phone offers enough unique features to get people to switch. Would there be many ‘Amazon people’ that don’t already have a smartphone? I would guess most of them already have a device.

        1. Re your first paragraph, I think we are, to some extent.

          I never said the majority of people buy specific phones for that reason. Rather it’s often the reason why they choose an Android phone or an iPhone. The specific phone they choose in the case of Android is influenced by a host of other factors too. And many people choose Android simply because it’s what they can afford.

          And I agree – I said above and in my piece on my own blog last week that the addressable market is small.

  5. Why don’t they give them away for free to Prime customers, and have a reduced rate plan with the carrier of choice? Seems like the logical way to get more users.

    1. As they are on AT&T, those are GSM phones. There probably isn’t a CDMA version, so that right off the bat eliminates going to Verizon.

      iPhone deja vu all over again.

  6. It seems to me that Amazon should just release the Firefly app to iOS, Android and Windows and they will get more sales that way than sales specifically from Fire Phones. Also I think the 3d effect is a gimmick. Certainly not on my checklist of items when searching for a smart phone.

    1. My thoughts too, but there must be something in the experience that is compelling.
      3d effect—isn’t that the problem some had with Apple short while ago? Got a lot of flack over it.

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