You can imagine what was going through Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ mind as he and his company planned the new Fire Phone. Just like Apple, Facebook, and Twitter before it, Amazon was going to give the world what it didn’t know it wanted yet – in this case, a phone that let you interact with (and buy) objects in the real world.
It’s a common trope in tech – skate to where the puck is headed, not where it is now. But for all the times that strategy has succeeded, the Fire Phone and other tech announced in recent months have provided examples for another kind of lesson. No matter how forward-looking a company’s tech, it’s all to easy to forget a simple rule: a company should never prioritize its own interests over those of its consumers.
The Amazon Fire Phone seems a perfect example. It’s a slick, fast phone with a good camera, and some novel features – primary among them, the “Firefly” app and button, which recognizes things through the camera and then lets you buy them. With some neat, if yet-to-be-tested 3-D tricks thrown in, it’s certainly intriguing.
Yet, for all the innovation, imagine what it means to most people to consider buying a Fire Phone. Because it runs Amazon’s own custom Android version called Fire OS, users would have to give up the many of the apps they’ve accumulated on an iPhone or regular Android, and may have to make do without many others. Though Amazon have said big apps like Whatsapp and Uber are on the way, quite a few others like Snapchat aren’t, and major Google apps like Maps and Gmail will never show up at all.
Worse, for the privilege of that hampered experience, you get a phone designed explicitly to make buying things from Amazon easier. Point the phone at an object, and it will recognize it and quickly take you to Amazon.com to purchase it, whether it’s a CD, chocolate bar or book. As a side trick it’s nice, but it’s hardly a reason to abandon other, better ecosystems (especially for the decidedly not-low price of $199 (U.S.) with a two-year contract, and $649 without). Most damningly, though, is a crucial question of why the Firefly function wouldn’t work better as an app on iPhones and Androids people already own. It’s as if Amazon are making a device solely to encourage you to shop at their online store and digital services, without thinking about what’s actually best for people who want a new smartphone.
Amazon isn’t alone in this approach. Microsoft’s recently-announced Surface Pro 3 is similarly well designed and has great features – and unfortunately also seems to prioritize its maker’s interests over users. The tablet-laptop hybrid is very thin; has a fast processor; has an innovative pen system that allows easy note-taking that saves to the cloud; and has a smart keyboard cover and hinge that allow it work somewhat like a laptop. Yet the entire design is based on a flawed premise: that what users want is one device for everything from work to sitting on a couch and watching Netflix.
Reviews of the Surface Pro 3 reveal that, despite an improved, even impressive, design it isn’t as good as a Macbook Air at laptop functions, and at 12 inches, isn’t as useful or easy to hold as a smaller tablet. Of course, there will be a small number of people to whom those compromises are worth the convenience of everything in one package, Yet, they remain compromises, and furthermore, compromises borne of Microsoft’s insistence that a hybrid is a better option than separate devices – which of course, Microsoft must adhere to because that’s the bet it made with the hybrid interface of Windows 8. Yet, for all Microsoft’s bluster about how this product is finally “the tablet that can replace a laptop,” if it doesn’t work as well as either laptop or tablet, what’s the point? Why didn’t anyone simply stop and ask: how is this better than what exists now?
Sometimes when a company focuses on what it does well we call it by another name – leveraging its strengths. For example, though it was bitterly criticized at its launch, Sony’s Playstation 3 brought the company’s expertise in both gaming and media functions to the console, and it eventually worked to great effect. The included Blu-Ray technology gained a toehold, the PS3 is the number one device for watching Netflix, and it has now sold a solid 80 million units, largely thanks to the way in which it played to Sony’s unique qualities.
The problem, however, arises when “playing to your strengths” means ignoring what’s best for consumers. So many companies these days – Amazon, Microsoft, and Sony among them – seem to be missing a key Steve Jobs-esque person in their organizations whose only role should be to ask a basic question: “Is this actually good for our users? Or does this just meld our interests with a device or service?”
It’s a difficult query to pose, especially in large corporations where powerful senior executives are constantly jostling for recognition and success. Yet, it’s one that must be asked. If nobody does, you simply get a digital world littered with failures, if only because companies get too caught up in their own vested concerns instead of focusing on what matters: the people who, at the end of day, actually have to use those products.
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