Jeff Bezos tried to be like Steve Jobs and failed

Fast Company has a fascinating article on Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Fire. It’s a great piece and worth the long length. Check it out and then come back here.

For those who don’t need the nuance, here’s the story’s bottom line: the Amazon Fire was Jeff Bezos’ baby. He micromanaged it like Steve Jobs, and made decisions unpopular with his team but which he pushed through anyway. One example is Dynamic Perspective, the feature that enabled the phone’s 3D effect, came at great cost and which customers didn’t end up appreciating.

The story is fascinating because it gets to the heart of intuition vs. data. Are great products born out of intuition and personal genius? Or out of market research, data analysis and testing? Microsoft is traditionally about the latter, and the one time they tried the former — Steven Sinofsky and Windows 8 — it wasn’t successful.

It appears that Amazon too tried to make that leap.

Amazon is famous for making decisions based on data, but with the Amazon Fire, Bezos strived to be more like Apple and made decisions based on intuition.

It’s not proof you can only be one or the other. There’s a lot of gray between these two ends — did Bezos not exercise intuition in insisting on schemes that looked crazy at the time, but proved prescient? Kindle hardware, Amazon Web Services, two day shipping, the enormous capital required to build the giant they are today — these are all fairly gutsy moves.

Creating great products is like hitting baseballs. You will definitely miss. But if you don’t make that swing, you’re never going to make it. As long as you don’t miss too many, all you need is one homerun. Despite this story’s inflammatory title, don’t count Bezos out — this is a smart guy who will get more things right than wrong.

I understand the strategy. The web is an open place so Amazon doesn’t have to worry about how customers get on it. However, mobile is a controlled environment, and there is a risk platform owners will eventually displace Amazon, similar to what Apple did with Google Maps for example with its own solution. So Bezos probably thought it wise to hedge its future with the Fire OS and Fire phone.

From there, Bezos probably concluded that, in the crowded smartphone market, they needed to make something unique that would wow people. Hence his insistence on Dynamic Perspective.

Where I take exception to this approach is why have the Fire OS at all. Why fork Android? It only makes sense is if Amazon intended to license Fire OS to other hardware makers (and how does that make sense); otherwise, wouldn’t it be better to simply make an Android phone with a custom launcher that serves as a gateway to its e-commerce platform?

If Amazon made an Android phone, it would have ecosystem parity. Customers can purchase the phone with confidence they can get their favorite apps. Then, you don’t need special hardware to catch people’s attention — all you need is a cheap price, great service and high awareness. Three things that Amazon has in spades.

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