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Kindle Fire: the Best Disappointment Ever?

The worse the user experience, the more lucrative for Amazon.
December 14, 2011

A month in, the Kindle Fire backlash is ramping up. A number of outlets are reporting on ire directed at Amazon’s tablet, which runs $199 versus the iPad’s $500 or more. But the consensus seems to be: you’re getting what you pay for. A usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, has called the Fire “disappointingly poor,” and about a third of the reviews of Amazon’s own site of the product are lukewarm or poor (three stars or less) according to the New York Times. The fat-fingered, the privacy-minded, and those who don’t like to accidentally switch off their devices due to an ill-placed power button are counseled, by many, to avoid the product. Amazon has already promised an over-the-air software update to deal with some usability issues.

Here’s the most striking thing about the Kindle Fire, though: Amazon practically has an incentive to make the thing clunky. The Kindle Fire is being sold at a loss, it is widely assumed. (According to estimates by IHS iSuppli, Amazon loses some $20 on every $79 Kindle.) The business model of the Kindle Fire is, as I’ve written here before, obviously not to make money on hardware sales, but to give users an addictive shopping portal that will entice them to since hundreds and thousands of dollars on Jeff Bezos’s site.

When I read Andrew Rassweiler of iSuppi’s comment in the recent New York Times report, my eyebrows arched: “What else are you going to do on this Kindle?” he said. “Nothing. It’s a useless device unless you’re planning on putting books, a lot of books, on it.” I have long felt that tablets are predominantly media consumption devices, rather than devices for productivity–largely because of the awkwardness of the non-physical keyboard. But only upon reading Rassweiler’s comment did it strike me in full: Amazon practically has an incentive to make aspects of its user experience poor. If the only thing you can easily do on your new gadget is buy books and media through Amazon’s streamlined shopping portal, guess what you’re going to do most?

I began to think something along these lines (if not necessarily in these exact words): that if I were given to conspiracy theories, I’d wonder if Amazon deliberately designed a poor Web browsing user experience to keep Fire users from shopping on competing sites. Then I reached the end of the Times article, which closes on a quote from the UX expert, Nielsen: “If I were given to conspiracy theories,” he said, “I’d say that Amazon deliberately designed a poor Web browsing user experience to keep Fire users from shopping on competing sites.”

Now, neither of us are given to conspiracy theories, hence our use of conditional verb tenses. But it’s still striking that despite the device’s flaws, analysts are maintaining their predictions that Amazon will move three to five million units this quarter. And despite the device’s flaws–indeed, to a certain extent, because of them–the Fire will drive more and more purchasing on Amazon.com. All of which may wind up making the Fire one of the most lucrative mediocre products in history.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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