Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Digital Reader

The Digital Reader

Amazon’s Echo Chamber, Redux (Or What Happens When Pundits Don’t Understand Consumers)

Posted: 08 Nov 2014 12:58 PM PST

Many_Tablets[1]A post on Amazon crossed my desk today, and have to take issue with it. It was written by Dustin Curtis of Svbtle, and while it is a good read I think it also shows that Curtis doesn’t understand consumers.

Curtis takes issue with Amazon’s hardware strategy, and starts his argument with:

I used to give Amazon's consumer hardware strategy the benefit of the doubt. I liked the original e-ink Kindles, even though they were made out of cheap plastic. I kind of understood the first Kindle Fire tablet, even though it was a piece of junk. But as 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.

Even Amazon has said that the Fire Phone is a flop, so there’s no disagreement there, but Curtis believes that Amazon’s entire hardware strategy is a flop. Claiming that ” Amazon continues to make hardware because it doesn’t know that it sucks”, Curtis describes the life cycle of Amazon’s product thusly:

They make a product, they market the product on, they sell the product to 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.

I don’t claim to fully understand why consumers choose the gadgets they buy, but based on my observations I don’t think Curtis can make the claim that Amazon gadgets are bought and soon abandoned – not without actual data to back it up.

Over the past few months, old hardware has come up as a topic of discussion on this blog that I have come to doubt my standards for what qualifies as a usable device.

  • When the Kindle Voyage launched, one Kindle 2 user called my on my complaints about the Voyage’s high price (and he was right to do so, and witty). Several commenters were still using that 5 year old Kindle.
  • Last fall I briefly owned a quad-copter, before selling it to a guy who went on to use it with his original Kindle Fire.
  • Speaking of which, my mother was happy to use an original Kindle Fire – right up until it died. She then upgraded to my Kindle Fire HD, which we both liked.

And it’s not just Amazon hardware that is used more than pundits would expect. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve recommended one device over another and had owners of the lesser device show up in the comment section and defend it.

What’s more, in the past week I have fielded tech support questions for a 2010-era original black Pandigital Novel tablet and for a 2011-era Panimage tablet. In June I helped someone troubleshoot an original white Pandigital Novel tablet – which he was still using four years after it launched.

I can’t tell you what percentage of the cheaper tablets are discarded by dissatisfied consumers, but I wouldn’t be so cavalier and dismiss them all so quickly.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not listing these examples to show that these consumers don’t know that they’re using junk; if the consumers are happy then the hardware is by definition not junk. My point is that Curtis’s standards for defining this hardware as junk, as well as the standards which I have recently thrown out, are simply wrong.

So far as I can tell, he’s using a design aesthetic which does not match up with what consumers actually think about the products they use on a daily basis.

And since it’s clear that Curtis is fundamentally wrong on his understanding of consumers, I don’t trust his later arguments either:

The media strategy that seems to be driving Jeff Bezos to make mobile consumption devices (with Amazon's media stores and Prime video/music) is flawed. No one makes money selling media for consumption anymore. That market is quickly and brutally dying.

If there’s no money to be made in selling media then how did Netflix make $71 million in profit in the second quarter?

I don’t have the data to prove Curtis wrong when it comes to Amazon, but for the sake of an argument I am going to  apply Tyrion’s Razor*.

It’s safe to assume that Amazon has internal data on how the Fire tablets are used. They don’t share it, but they have that data to show how often a Fire tablet owner buys stuff at Amazon. I am betting that this data is what led Amazon to release 4 iterations of Android tablets.

No, I can’t prove it, but I think it is safer to assume that Amazon is basing their product decisions on that data than to assume that they made the same mistake 4 times in a row.


P.S. Tyrion’s Razor is a term I coined earlier this year which is basically a corollary to Hanlin's Razor. Rather than assuming the cause of an action to be  stupidity,Tyrion’s Razor states that one should never attribute an action to stupidity which might be explained by asymmetrical information. (In other words people aren’t as stupid as we might assume; they're just working from different data.)

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