Launching The Kindle Fire was a Mistake
After 12 hours of taxis, greyhounds, and crammed car rides with my family, I was home for the holidays. Despite the exhausting journey, I couldn’t be more excited. Waiting for me were two packages: an HTC HD7 and a Kindle Fire.
The two devices couldn’t be more different. One is polished, elegant, smooth, responsive, intuitive with attention paid to little details. The other is slow, ugly, inconsistent, and frustrating to operate. If one year ago you told me the first device was from Microsoft and the second from Amazon, I would have laughed in your face.
Unfortunately, the Kindle Fire is downright terrible. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to like the Kindle Fire. I really did. I pre-ordered it less than an hour after it was announced. I high-fived my roommate, who worked on the Fire, for contributing to what would surely be remembered as a revolutionary device. As a former Amazonian engineer myself, I fondly remembered the oft-repeated Amazon mantra of “we are the most customer-focused company on Earth”. I was convinced Amazon would get this right. Bezos believed in amazing user experiences just as much as I did, right?
Wrong! From the moment you pick up the strangely weighty slate and press the tiny and awkwardly placed ON button, the user experience is abysmal. The swipe-to-unlock gesture is laggy. Let me repeat that, the swipe-to-unlock gesture is laggy. This is the first interaction a user has with the device and Amazon couldn’t even get it right. Adding insult to injury, it’s an extremely simple and ugly unlock-gesture, just the sweep of a mono-color bar from right to left.
For the home screen, Amazon went with a faux-real world material design in a nod to iOS design principles. There is considerable debate in the industry whether real world design metaphors are ideal. Apple says they are. The Android team says they aren’t. However, what’s not up for debate is the Fire home screen is ugly, inconsistent, and nonsensical. The recently used app carousal sits in a wooden bookshelf. It makes little sense because the app icons don’t resemble the real world. The icons are 2D, so spinning them in 3D looks strange when situated on a real-world object like a bookshelf. The apps recede into the bookshelf infinitely, which makes it clear they aren’t actually sitting on the shelf. Why is the shelf even there and if the apps are floating in space in front of it?
The notifications and settings drop down is infuriatingly hard to access because of the Fire’s habit of dropping touch events. The browser struggles to scroll even the simplest of pages. Most embarrassing, the Kindle app itself struggles to turn pages.
I’d love to go on. But this isn’t a review of the Fire. There are plenty of those on the web and chances are you’ve already read a few. Instead, I’d like to explain why the Fire was released in in such a sorry state and why this is a mistake for Amazon.
Everything on the Fire reeks of a rush job. It’s like the team took the Facebook engineering mantra “done is better than perfect” to the logical extreme. There is no way the the Kindle team is proud of the OS they released. So what happened?
Work on much of the Fire software began in May 2011. The device launched in November. Six months is not enough time to design, build, and iterate on an OS design. Six months is just enough time to build a technically functional version. For example, take the laggy unlock gesture: an engineer probably built it in a couple weeks, showed it to a product manager who said, “looks good to me, lets move on!”, and then re-assigned the engineer to a new task. Given the short time frame, it’s almost a miracle the Fire shipped in the state it did. It could have been much, much worse. It’s a testament to the talented group of engineers Amazon hired the Fire got released at all.
That said, the Fire software is beta quality and that’s putting it nicely. So why did Amazon set such an aggressive launch timeline? To understand , you must understand Amazon and to understand Amazon is to understand Jeff Bezos. The best insight into Bezos’s thinking is in his annual letter to shareholders. In the first letter in 1997, Bezos explained Amazon’s core philosophy:
It’s All About the Long Term
This philosophy manifests itself in every part of Amazon’s business. The Kindle Fire is no different. It’s priced at a loss to gain market share. It’s the first of many devices and form factors. Expect a Kindle phone and 10” Kindle tablet next year. A Kindle TV is probably on the table too. Amazon engineered the Fire to be the center of a customer’s consumption ecosystem. Books. Movies. TV. Music. Apps. Games. Shopping. All at your finger tips, literally. Leveraging Amazon assets is a key differentiator that other Android tablet manufactures can’t hope to match.
Amazon released the Fire during Q4 2011 to capitalize on the Holiday market. Bezos likely believes that it was more important to release early and build marketshare than release a polished product. If it could, Amazon would give the Fire away for free.
But there in lies the problem. It’s one thing to ship beta software for free (hello Google), but it’s inexcusable to charge $200 for it. Why? Lets back up a month. It’s November 2011, and I’m on the phone with my mother. I convince her to pre-order the Kindle Fire. I tell her it’s less than half the price of an iPad, but the software will be almost as polished because it’s made by Amazon. I tell her that I already pre-ordered mine and that it’s all but guaranteed to be awesome.
Cut to this afternoon. My mother’s Kindle Fire sits unloved in its shipping box. My mother tried and tried to use it, but became frustrated when she couldn’t download apps. The Amazon app store asks you to confirm your “purchase” when you download free apps so my mother mistakenly believed she would be charged. She also tried to use it to take notes, but the included document editor, QuickOffice, doesn’t appear to include a way to make new documents (I haven’t figured out how to either). Frustrated and disappointed my mother is returning her Kindle Fire to Amazon for a refund. She just can’t spend $200 willy-nilly.
My aunt couldn’t figure out how to unlock the Fire. Watching my dad try to open the browser was painful. After ten failed taps on the label, he gave up. My sister thinks the device is slow and ugly. This was in stark contrast to the ooo’s and aww’s she gave to Windows Phone and Ice Cream Sandwich.
By releasing the Kindle Fire before it was fully cooked, Amazon has tarnished its reputation in the tablet space. Just like Windows Phone 7 is dismissed by many for its implicit association with Windows Mobile and Hotmail and IE are considered terrible despite recent gains in quality.
Yet, the drive to quickly release a product in a hot field is almost irresistible. Amazon believes growing marketshare is more important than the reputation of their tablet. This is wrong. I believe consumer tolerance for poor products is at an all time low, thanks to ten years of amazing Apple products. Unfortunately, the idea that first movers win is widely believed across the tech industry.
Take videogames. Microsoft repeatedly claimed it released the Xbox 360 first because the first console to ship wins. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the Wii beat the Xbox 360 despite shipping a year later. It’s true that the Playstation 2 won the previous generation and shipped a year before the Xbox and Gamecube, but it always had the best value: the lowest price and the most exclusive games. The Sega Saturn was the first console released in its generation, but it performed the poorest, selling less than 1/10th the number of the PlayStation 1. Why did the Sega Saturn fail? High price point and the fewest games. In other words, poor value.
In the long term, the product with the best value wins. Belief in long term planning is central to Amazon and so they must believe the Kindle Fire will deliver the best value in the long term. But, it certainly doesn’t deliver the best value right now. To deliver roughly the same value as the iPad 2, the Fire needs to be 2 / 5ths as useful. It isn’t. The app selection is pitiful, the performance and usability is abysmal, battery life is adequate at best, and it is useless as a productivity device. Amazon didn’t even include a native email client.
Consumers are snapping the Fire up because it’s $200, but they expect a tablet. Not a black brick that plays movies. The return rate will be high and Amazon will suffer for it. There is no chance my mother will buy another Amazon tablet any time soon.
So what should Amazon have done? They should have given the Fire six more months in the oven. A summer 2012 release would have been unstoppable. Imagine a $200 Kindle Fire with amazing and beautiful software released in the typically boring summer months. The value and hype would be unprecedented (except, perhaps, for when the TouchPad was $100).
The current rumors point to a Q2 2012 launch for Amazon’s next tablet, but will consumers give Amazon another shot? Considering Amazon’s impeccable track record up to now, I think they will. But, the launch could be stronger without the memory of the Fire in the back of the mind. By releasing the Fire too early, Amazon took away the magic. Perhaps it’s time Bezos took a page of out Job’s book: consumer devices should be magical, even in version 1.0.