Portals 2.0 • 14 November 2011 • The SnowBlog
Theres an interesting piece in this months Wired about the launch of the Kindle Fire and the future of Amazon. It begins as an editorial and turns into an interview with Jeff Bezos. A chunk of it concerns what you might call the positioning of the Fire and the devices that will come after it. As many have speculated, it seems that the Fire is not primarily intended as a general-purpose tablet; its designed more along the lines of its Kindle predecessors in that its a dedicated delivery-point for Amazon content. But unlike its predecessors, the Fire lets you consume not just books, but movies, music and apps - and it has an innovative full-service web browser built-in. It appears that Amazon would like to do to each of those new channels what they've already done to e-books. Of course none of those capabilities really set the Fire apart from the iPad. The functionality is broadly similar; its the emphasis thats very different. Which may in fact be another of way of saying the iPad will beat the Fire on everything but price.
Though, to be fair, theres no clear indication yet of what you might and might not be allowed to do via the Fires installed apps. Nevertheless the intention is clearly that this tablet is a conduit for content, not a tiny PC without a keyboard.
When I reached the part where Jeff Bezos expounded a little on his future vision, what struck me was how much it echoed the interest (obsession?) with internet portals that we saw in the late Nineties, in the heyday of the Dot Com Boom. Back then, when having a web presence of any sort was still a bit of a novelty for many firms, there was a vogue for 'thinking big' and approaching the web strategically'. The idea was that if you could get customers not just to visit your website, but to choose it as their home page, then you could be the gateway through with they reached the online world. You could be their tour guide, their chaperone and their personal shopper - and the world would need to come to you when it wanted access to your customers.
This idea began (and to some extent ended) with AOL and CompuServe who offered the walled garden internet experience even before there was an internet. And the fact that those early, highly-successful experiments ultimately went into decline did nothing to dissuade others from following in their footsteps.
The closest anyone got was Google, who really did become the home page for a high percentage of the worlds web browsers. But they did so, in a sense, by resisting the venal temptations of portalhood. You could reach any and every part of the web via Google. You werent restricted to just Googles strategic business partners. And Googles doggedly minimalist interface remained the unobtrusive antithesis of other would-be portals. We allowed them to become our gateway to the web because they never abused the position or tried to profit from it in a way that made our lives more difficult. Most importantly, they offered a genuine functional advantage over their competitors.
But the dream of locking in your customers and owning the toll road (complete with shopping mall) by which they reached the web has never gone away. And to read Jeff Bezoss words it sounds as though he considers the time to be right for another attempt at the prize. The Fire will make it easy - perhaps ridiculously, even seductively easy to consume Amazons content in preference to anyone elses. The flip side might - and this is pure speculation on my part - turn out to be a lack of support for competing content. Will the Fire have a Kobo and an iBooks reader app? Will it have video players and music players which work with iTunes content? Will you be able to stream content from NetFlix? There are at least indications that the Fire will play music from outside sources - but then that ship has already sailed; they simply couldnt get away with denying users access to their established music libraries. Id be less sanguine about the non-Amazonian video playback options.
Even the Fires innovative web browser has some unique quirks which could, conceivably - and perhaps only subtly - corral customers, making it less likely that they stray too far from the fold. Amazon have given over a segment of their formidable computing power to act as a sort of proxy for Fire web browsers. When a Fire user fetches a web page, it is first fetched by Amazons mighty servers, assembled and compressed, and then passed to the Fires browser pre-digested. The system is called Silk and it will apparently make the loading of web pages much more responsive. But part of me wonders why we need that extra responsiveness. Given that this is a device intended for streaming large - or even huge - files, like music and movies, over an internet connection, isnt browsing the humble old web the least of its concerns? On the other hand, the idea that every byte and pixel of your web browsing experiences is routed via Amazons servers cannot help but feel slightly suspicious. Theyll know everything they want to know about your web behaviour and - if they so wished - theyd be in a position to make some of that behaviour easier and some of it a little more difficult.
To some extent Amazon are already well on their way to building a portal for e-books. The Kindle Store dominates the e-book realm and while existing Kindle devices will, grudgingly, do one or two other things, theyre really only happy when serving Amazon content. You can e-mail them non-Kindle books, but its not well-publicised and they wont WhisperSync between devices. To me, this seems like a preview of how Amazon versus non-Amazon content will work in the music, video and app arenas.
I also wonder whether Amazon need to be selling a TV too. If they want to stream video rather than let you download it (and that is clearly what the Fire is geared towards) then wont they need to give you a few more options for where you can watch? Will we spend a lot of money on content which only works on one tablet device?
Perhaps their pricing tariffs will provide the answer. Following on from what Ive been saying about Amazons fondness for selling below cost in order to get you hooked, Amazon Prime customers will apparently be given access to all sorts of free video content (12,000 and counting movies and TV shows). Maybe well feel happier about spending money on what might be a closed (and limited) platform if were renting access to a huge library rather than purchasing individual titles.
It might seem strange to offer this content to Amazon Prime customers, because Prime is all about paying a fixed fee for free high-speed delivery of packages - not on the face of it anything to do with video. But of course anyone who already has a Prime account will have a good incentive to buy a Fire. And anyone with a Fire who takes out Prime membership for the video library will have a strong incentive to buy more physical product. Its all about cross-selling and multi-channel bundling: clever, but also just the sort of thing companies like Microsoft got in trouble for when it started to really deliver results.
Im not entirely sure why, but personally I cant see it working. Its a decade too late to lock anyone in when it comes to music and a couple of years too late to lock in a lot of video consumers. Not to detract from their hard work, but Amazon have been lucky with e-books in that they havent encountered any serious opponents yet. Their e-book format is dominant as are their e-reader devices, and both reinforce the others proprietary hold. But Amazon will encounter more than just fledgling start-ups and slow-witted dinosaurs when they make their push into other forms of content - and despite what this article says about Apple being a hardware company and Amazon being content-sellers* theres a lot of overlap when it comes to the Fire. There are over 40 million iPads out there already and restrictive though Apple often are, it looks like Amazon have an even more tightly controlled service in mind. Thats going to be a tough sell from a standing start with a product which is unlikely to wow anyone whos used an iPad.
* Check out that chart where Wired invent a lot of nonsense reasons why Jeff is right. I mean, suggesting that Apple aren't 'cloud-centric' a couple of weeks after they wired up everything in their product line to iCloud is ridiculous.