The Kindle Fire tied for the most popular Android-based tablet this month, and appears to have taken the previous unchallenged king, the vastly more capable, Galaxy Tablet from Samsung, out at the knees. However, what makes this doubly interesting is that Amazon did what no other Android vendor has done; they forked Android and created a version that is unique to Amazon and very reminiscent of how Apple used UNIX to create both of their successful platforms, iOS and MacOS. In short, they made their own OS, taking the parts of UNIX they wanted and then crafting something that was far more successful as a client platform than any UNIX version had ever before been. Now that doesn’t seem all that amazing given that UNIX was never intended as a consumer OS, but Android was, and Amazon points to a success path away from Google.
Let’s explore that this week.
Distance from Google = Path to Success
The most profitable PC vendor, Apple, doesn’t sell a Windows machine. This showcases the power of differentiation in a market saturated with similar products and similar experiences. Apple was able to stand out by architecting a different experience from software through on-line services and as a result of marketing the differences as advantages. Still, in the PC space, they struggle for a meaningful share and, if it weren’t for products like the iPod, iPad, and iPhone, they’d likely have failed before the decade ended.
The difference between the PC market and the tablet, smartphone, and MP3 player segments is that business drives it and businesses, particularly big ones, drive volume. But that is changing even in the PC space; increasingly, consumers/employees are driving the technology selection and, while they too like standardization and don’t particularly like change either, they have a vastly greater interest in ease of use and far less tolerance for complexity than IT does. They also buy as much on status as they do on price, and since they are increasingly making the purchase decisions, the technology market, at least with regard to client devices, is shifting to more of a consumer model. High churn (consumers are fickle but will refresh products often), heavy focus on how the hardware looks and a high degree of integration between software and services.
This puts far more emphasis on design than your typical technology product, which is largely why Apple’s balance between engineering, design and marketing has allowed them to flourish.
The Amazon Lesson
The Amazon lesson is that other companies can do this. This may seem obvious to you and me, but most of the technology vendors seemed to just accept they couldn’t do what Apple has been doing. But now that Amazon has also brought out a product that balanced design with engineering and it was well marketed. They also came at the market with an aggressive price point and smaller size; in fact, on this last -- they are the only vendor who has been successful in the seven-inch size class.
Much of why they were successful was that they approached the market unlike most other vendors who seemed to either want to clone the iPad (Samsung) or create something that exceeded it in some engineering fashion, like the initial Toshiba Thrive, which was much thicker but had a better port selection. Amazon created something very different and then marketed the benefits of this difference and was successful. While the Fire still suffered in head-to-head comparisons to the iPad in things the iPad does particularly well (like web browsing), for hand held media viewing and entertainment, the Fire was actually better (much lighter and more portable) and it clearly had a price advantage.
The Important Statistic
However, the hidden important statistic in these numbers is that the Kindle Fire generated 2.5x the number of paid downloads of the Galaxy Tab and Amazon profits from each download. This means they have created a money machine in the Kindle Fire which could further subsidize its future price. This too is very Apple-like, as Apple is increasingly pulling its profits not from the devices alone but from app, music and video content sales. The Fire was optimized for those sales.
Wrapping Up: Why Amazon Won
The reason Amazon won is they took ownership for the entire customer experience and, since they felt the generic Android experience was lacking, fixed that experience with their own product. In so doing, they showed everyone else that the most profitable path to tablet success is to take control of the customer experience, balance engineering with design so that customers love the hardware, and then market the unique advantages well so buyers see the differences as advantages not shortcomings against the iPad.
Long term, there is some risk to Amazon’s approach, and that resides in the fact that with every generation, Android is improving and Amazon won’t be able to take advantages of these improvements very easily because they forked the code. Still, they demonstrated that if you want to be successful in this space, you need to assure the customer experience, not just take the normal path of complaining about the OS vendor.
In the end, Amazon won by betraying the Android platform and going their own way. In so doing, they have succeeded to a degree that only the most powerful Android OEM has been able to match and they did it the first time out of the gate. One wonders how much of the market the far more capable Kindle Fire 2 will take.
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President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group