If this is how Amazon treats its friends, I would hate to be its enemy.
On Thursday, Amazon unleashed a veritable barrage of new gadgetry, all powered by, or integrated with, its Alexa virtual assistant. The reveals ranged from routine updates to its Echo Dot and Echo Show speakers, all the way to oddities like a $60 microwave, a $25 smart plug, and a $50 Echo speaker for mounting on car dashboards.
It was a feeding frenzy for gadget blogs.
But to me, the most striking part of all the announcements, was how willing the company now seems to be to compete with the very same partners that helped its Alexa platform become as popular as it is.
A major reason why Amazon’s Alexa enjoys so much momentum is that it’s become one of the premiere standards in the fast-growing market for connected home appliances. Since the original Amazon Echo launched in 2015, the retailer has successfully convinced just about every major electronics manufacturer to produce Alexa-compatible gear, from refrigerators, to thermostats, to autos.
It’s something of a flywheel: The more Alexa gear a customer has, the more they want, in the interests of making sure all of their appliances work with each other. It’s good for the manufacturers, who have made Alexa compatibility a selling point. This dynamic is best, though, for Amazon, as its Alexa assistant spreads everywhere.
Now, though, Amazon is signalling an increased willingness to compete with the very same manufacturers whose Alexa-powered gadgetry made it the pioneering platform it is today.
The $60 AmazonBasics microwave with Alexa is going head-to-head with products like GE’s $130 smart microwave. Manufacturers as far-ranging as Belkin, TP-Link, Samsung and even Best Buy’s house brands offer their own smart plugs, much the same as Amazon’s new smart plugs. Even the Echo Auto car gadget is somewhat similar to a device made by Garmin.
Still, it’s a familiar playbook for Amazon. In late 2017, Amazon released the Cloud Cam, an Alexa-compatible security camera designed in-house. Then, in early 2018, Amazon snapped up Ring, a startup making home security systems — two moves that didn’t necessarily endear Amazon to other security companies.
Still, the market for smart-home stuff is small enough that there’s room for many companies to succeed. There are, after all, a lot of consumers relying on other platforms like Google Assistant or Apple’s Siri, and it’s not like Amazon’s new hardware products will cater to them.
The risk for Amazon is that its expanding collection of in-house hardware products antagonizes other electronics and appliance makers so much that it drives them into the arms of rival platform providers like Google’s or Apple.
It’s a balancing act that other hardware-software companies have tried with varying degrees of success.
There’s a case to be made that Amazon is simply frustrated at the pace of development in smart home electronics, and is taking matters into its own hands. In fact, Amazon Senior VP Dave Limp said at the hardware launch event that the $60 Alexa-integrated microwave was really a showpiece for a new, inexpensive processor it will sell to manufacturers, helping them make even their lowest-end products Alexa-enabled.
At the same time, though, it’s hard to give Amazon the benefit of the doubt, here. This is a company that’s renowned for its ruthlessness in entering and dominating new markets, and there are no signs that it’s stopping any time soon.
Besides, Amazon has the greatest lever of all, here: Given the increased importance of its retailing business, both online and in the real world, it’s in these electronics manufacturers interest to stay cozied up to Amazon. It’s a heck of a lever for helping keep your partners on board, even while you’re building products that directly compete with their core business.
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