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The case against the Kindle as a low end tablet disruption

In an Harvard Business Review post Rob Wheeler makes the case for the Kindle Fire as a disruptive innovation. I believe that it is but crucially I disagree that the Kindle Fire is a low end disruption.

My assessment of the Kindle Fire is based on the two attributes which Amazon highlights as the key selling points which offer a basis of differentiation and potential for asymmetric competition: a low price and a new browsing model. I believe that these two attributes result in two opportunities: one for low end disruption and another of new market disruption. I reject the first and tentatively support the second.[1]

The price

It’s immediately obvious that the price point of the Kindle Fire is well below alternatives. That forms the basis of disruptive potential, but before we jump to analyzing the disruption hypothesis we should determine whether and to what extent Amazon profits from the device directly. Profitability gives us a clue to where Amazon will apply resources and thus establish its trajectory of improvement.

We know the margin on the Fire is low because we can calculate the bill of materials for 7″ tablets. Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray estimates that Amazon “loses” $50 for each unit sold. We also know that the design Amazon used is essentially very similar to the RIM PlayBook and was sourced from the same ODM. RIM priced the product at $499 but has struggled to find buyers and is reluctantly dropping the price. We also can estimate that Apple with a product having more than twice the screen size is keeping modest (~30%) gross margins for at a price point approximately double that of the Fire. It does seem that Amazon does not have much or any margin to dip into.[2]

So the Fire can be classified as a low price product. Does that make it a low end disruption?

Disruption requires asymmetry but it also requires the ability to go up a trajectory of improvement along the basis of performance that a majority of users demand. The first condition is met, but what of the second? In a combined system where one asset is used to leverage another–the subsidized being sacrificed to benefit the profitable–success is conditional on one element being “good enough” while the other “needing improvement”. Investment follows accordingly.

But investment decisions have consequences. The subsidized device is starved of investment while the profitable service is nurtured. We see evidence of short cuts in investment in the off-the-shelf nature of Kindle products: from a second-hand (unsanctioned) OS to a second-hand (ex-RIM) hardware. Meanwhile, Amazon spends heavily on capex for the infrastructure that delivers the profitable content.

If the hardware is indeed commoditized and cannot be usefully improved, then this model works. If, on the other hand, the hardware and systems software can benefit from dramatic improvements in technology then the model fails. The very asymmetry of a service vs. a product turns into the latter having all the advantages and the former failing to gain traction.

I’ll give three examples of this how service model creates limitations which lead to a failure to disrupt a product model.

The Game Consoles

The first is the game console business. In consoles, the vendors maintain long hardware product life-cycles to recover their hardware investment and subsidy by maximizing the number of games attached to each console. If you plot product cycles you realize that the bigger the subsidy, the longer the hardware lifecycle. The result is a very wide turning circle which prevents innovation in new dimensions.

Consider that the Playstation or the Xbox could have been a low end computing disruption. The original Xbox was in fact a PC. It was supposed to bring PC dynamism to the console business and create a cottage industry of new developers building games on commoditized hardware. However by the second generation the Xbox was a locked down, custom architecture, pure gaming machine. Gone was Intel, gone was the PC architecture and gone was any dream of cheap development.

This is entirely due to the economics of subsidized hardware. It compelled Microsoft, the world’s greatest software company, built on the open and cheap PC architecture to make closed, expensive hardware. Sony followed in kind as did Nintendo. Each generation of consoles was a sustaining improvement on gaming and had no ambition beyond gaming[3]. The subsidy and the dependence on an integrated content value network led to a distinct lack of disruption and an insular industry which continues to seek out increasingly immersive experiences for increasingly demanding customers while itself being disrupted by casual, mobile gaming.

The Set-top boxes

The second example is the TV set-top box business. There again, the vendors maintain long hardware cycles in order to recover subsides. There too, the main value driver is the content and its distribution which stipulates the architecture, and through subsidy, defines its evolution. This offers the vendor no motivation to improve the user experience[4], secondary uses or the absorption of new streams of content (like those the internet can offer.)

Again, the set-top box could have been a budding disruptive opportunity for Microsoft. They invested billions in the 1990s to acquire placement of software on set-top boxes in an attempt to penetrate the living room. And again Microsoft was not alone. Since then Tivo, Google and Apple and many others tried to attach cheap hardware to video streams. They all failed to get on a disruptive trajectory. And again, the blame can be placed on the stifling effect of subsidies and dependencies on services or content which dictate where the value and hence the investments should go.

The Blackberry

The third example is the RIM Blackberry. Although RIM made most of its money on hardware and was by no means subsidizing it, the differentiation of their product was undoubtedly its service value. Both as a corporate device with BES and as a consumer device with BBS, customers “hired” the product as a service. By being committed to this model RIM management became blind to the hardware and client OS software innovations coming down the pike.

Through their own admission, they could not accept a touch screen because it would make the messaging experience too slow and it is messaging that sells Blackberries. They could not accept apps (and hence platform orchestration) as a differentiation because their customers did not hire Blackberries for “lifestyle apps”. Merely being differentiated as a service leads to blindness and enough hesitation that you run off the disruptive rails.

People ascribe myopia or incredible absence of mind to RIM’s management but the opposite is true. They were deeply committed and observant of the things which made the Blackberry successful. It just happened to be something that stopped being relevant.

The iPhone

I’ll add one more “bonus” example on this. The iPhone is also a subsidized product and it seems very successful. How come it won? The answer is in details. As I mentioned, the other products ended up in poor life cycles or incorrect motivations. The iPhone differs in that the lifecycle of the product is much shorter (2 years ownership with 1 year for product updates). The shorter lifecycle works for the iPhone because it has a very high service revenue base to dip into to offset the subsidy. Something none of the content models above could count on.

Consider that each game console subsidy needs to paid off by a handful of game titles whose royalties to the console maker are modest. Or that the TV box needs to ride on top a service that also has thin margins from a stable or slightly shrinking user base. In contrast, the iPhone enables vast new consumption worth thousands of dollars to the operator. This is the famous ARPU uplift that smart phones enable. Users are doubling their telecom spending when they move to smartphones.

The margins for Kindle content are thin. Very thin. Apple runs its content business at break even though it transacts billions of items per month. The amount of content that needs to pass through the Kindle ecosystem (with lower prices than Apple charges) will need to be astronomical to make it profitable on the shortened cycle time the iPhone enjoys. Thus the Kindle is likely to languish in a leisurely update cycle with users encouraged to hang on to their devices for years. This is the case at least with the original e-Ink Kindles. How eagerly awaited are new generations? How many users stampede to update the hardware or even upgrade the software? How many users have owned every version of the Kindle?

Service Scale

Finally one last point about services. As Amazon asserts, they see Kindle as a service, which, I concede, is asymmetric to a product business. The problem is that services don’t scale as well as products. Consider that none of the content streams that Amazon will depend on are available outside the US. The Kindle has not been a strong seller internationally. This is because book rights are limited to national boundaries as are movie rights and song rights. Apple has only this week finally completed the rollout of iTunes music to all of Europe! A process that took almost a decade. And they are still unable to sell music in most of Asia and forget about movies or TV shows.[5]

The reality is that there are no global service brands. Not in telecommunications (operators are, at best, regional), not in Media (TV, radio, publishing are a local businesses), not in Banking (not even in commercial banking) and not in Retail (even Wal-Mart was humbled trying to export its disruption). The internet has not broken down any of these boundaries and even Amazon has modest reach outside the US for any of their franchises. Services are local but products can be global.[6]

To wrap up, this discussion on the asymmetry of device-based services to product models leads me to conclude that the Fire will not have the opportunity to disrupt the iPad or tablets in general. Amazon sees the hardware and software of a device as a commodity and the content and its distribution as valuable. This assumes that the device is “good enough” and will not require deep re-architecting or that new input methods can be easily absorbed. In short, they see the tablet as at the end of its evolutionary path. Apple sees the exact opposite. The iPad is 18 months old, and as they say in the ads, they see it as only the beginning.

Notes:

  1. Due to length of discussion, in this post I will make the case against the low end disruptive potential and use a second post to make the case for it being a new market disruption.
  2. Presumably, Amazon will also distribute only through Amazon.com and thus not incur channel mark-ups. This means that comparisons with other tablets should be at a price nearer to 70% of retail.
  3. Gaming networks and video streaming are extensions but neither leveraged open architectures.
  4. See also discussion from June 2010 on the challenges to Apple TV that Steve Jobs enumerated.
  5. Apps are another story. Because it controls the medium, Apple can and does sell apps in every country where the iPhone or iPad or iPod touch is available.
  6. Note also that because of distribution through Amazon.com, the Kindle cannot reach as many buyers as a tablet selling through the tens of thousands of points of purchase that operators and retail shops offer.