Why Would Amazon Want to Sell a Mobile Phone?

Posted June 16th, 2014 by Scott Anthony in Innovation Insights

If you believe the rumors, Amazon.com is going to enter the mobile phone business this week, with most pundits guessing that a mysterious video suggest that it will release a phone with novel 3-D viewing capabilities.

There are obvious reasons for Amazon to be eying the category. The mobile phone industry is massive, with close to 2 billion devices shipped annually and total spending on wireless-related services of more than $1.6 trillion across the world. As mobile devices increasingly serve as the center of the consumer’s world, their importance to a range of companies is increasing.

What should you watch for on Wednesday’s launch to see if Amazon is moving in the right direction? It is natural to start with the set of features that Amazon includes on its phone.

One of the basic principles behind Clayton Christensen’s famous conception of disruptive innovation is that the fundamental things people try to do in their lives actually change relatively slowly. The world advances not because our needs, hopes, and desires change, but because innovators come up with different and better ways to help us do what we were always trying to get done.

Take the big shifts in the music business. People have enjoyed listening to music for all of recorded history. But the biggest industry transformations came when innovators made it simpler and easier for people to listen to the music they want, where they want, and when they want. Thomas Edison’s phonograph was the first big democratization of music, allowing individuals to listen to music without having to hire a live performer, train to be a musician, or go to a concert. Sending sound through the airwaves, received in a radio, furthered this trend, enabling people to hear live sound remotely, or hear a wider variety of pre-recorded music.

Floor-standing radios were relatively expensive and consumed a lot of power. So it was hard for individuals to listen to what they wanted where they wanted until Sony popularized the highly portable transistor radio in the 1960s. The fidelity was low, but teenagers eager to listen to rock music out of earshot of disapproving parents or to baseball games late at night flocked to the device.

It’s difficult to enjoy music if everyone is blaring transistor radios on the subway, so Sony again made it simpler and easier for people to listen to what they wanted, when they wanted, when it introduced the Walkman in 1979. The device, and its offspring the Discman, had one obvious limitation — when people were away from home they couldn’t easily access their music collection. People compensated for this by making mix tapes or lugging around cases with dozens of CDs.

MP3 players, most notably Apple’s iPod, made it simpler and easier to listen to the precise music you wanted when and where you wanted. The first commercials for the iPod highlighted the value of having “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Finally, streaming music services like Spotify removed even the need to build a music collection.

Mobile phones follow a similar pattern. The first wave of growth came as devices from Motorola and Nokia made it easy and steadily more affordable for people to make phone calls and send short messages when they were on the go. Blackberry’s rise came from releasing office workers from their desks by making remote e-mail easy. The next wave of growth came as Apple and Android-based smart phones put productivity and entertainment applications from computers in the palm of your hand.

Leaving aside the hype of 3-D technologies, the big question about Amazon as it enters into this seemingly crowded arena will be whether its offering makes it easier or more affordable for people to do something they’ve historically cared about. Pundits are skeptical, with some calling the potential idea “silly.” But one job a 3-D phone might do better than existing alternatives is enable shoppers to see something before they buy it. People like finding and obtaining new goods, and replicating the in-store experience anywhere in the world could allow more people to shop more conveniently.

Of perhaps even more interest is Amazon’s business model. Market disruptions typically combine a simplifying technology with a business model that runs counter to the industry norm. The prevailing mobile phone model involves service carriers subsidizing the devices in return for locking consumers into two-year phone service contracts and charging them based on usage.

If Amazon were primarily interested in driving more retail purchasing it might come up with completely different pricing and usage models, subsidizing both the hardware and the phone service, perhaps in conjunction with a more disruptively oriented mobile carrier such as T-Mobile, and reaping its profits by taking a cut of transactions enabled by its 3-D platform.

Finally, remember that the true impact of an innovation isn’t always fully apparent when it launches. When Apple launched the iPod in 2001 it was interesting, but when it added the iTunes music store in 2003 an industry changed. Similarly, Google’s super-fast search technology caught people’s attention in the late 1990s, but the development of its AdWords business model a few years later is what made the company what it is.

So on Wednesday look to see if Amazon has found a way to make the complicated simple or the expensive affordable, pay particular attention to the business model it plans to follow, and, most critically, once the dust settles from the pundit reactions, watch what the company next has up its sleeves.