When Jeff Bezos holds up Amazon’s (AMZN) new smartphone on Wednesday, it will be a black rectangle. In fact, it’s probably reasonable to say that this will be true every time an executive from any technology company holds up any smartphone for at least the next couple of years. (OK, occasionally the rectangles might be gold or red.)
Phones are pretty much forbidden from taking any other form at this point. Making a distinctive device within those constraints falls to Lab126, Amazon’s hardware division, which Bloomberg Businessweek’s Brad Stone wrote about on Tuesday. Lab126 has released a handful of products, giving a general sense of Amazon’s aesthetic sense running through the original Kindle to the Fire TV and most recently the Amazon Dash, a wand distributed on an invitation-only basis that scans a product’s barcode and adds it to a shopping list.
The Amazon smartphone project began with the concept of a 3D display that doesn’t need glasses, and a teaser video produced by Amazon hints that the phone it sells will integrate this feature. Glasses-free 3D might be a neat feature—with the emphasis on might—but it seems rather superfluous when measured against Amazon’s previous hardware projects. The company’s industrial design to date has been marked by such extreme utilitarianism that it is essentially non-design, says Gadi Amit of NewDealDesign, a design firm whose credits include the FitBit Force and Lytro camera. “None of these objects have those subject magical details that elevate a simple form into something else,” he says. “The execution is not there.”
Amazon is never going to care about pretty objects as much as Apple (AAPL) does. The company’s philosophy is to do nothing that would create even the smallest amount of friction for someone trying to make a purchase. Largely, this has been a software challenge, achieved through things such as one-click shopping and the Kindle bookstore.
On the hardware side, the writer and designer Craig Mod sees the Dash as the Platonic ideal of Amazon’s ethos. “You have this stick in your kitchen that has no interface,” he says, “and you just point it at things you want more of.” The actual design of the Dash is beside the point; the interesting thing was that Amazon saw it as important enough to make at all.
Jack Schulze, the founder of Berg Cloud, a design firm focused on Internet-connected products, says that Amazon’s best work has come on devices such as the original Kindle, which was razor-focused on selling a specific type of media. “It’s such an elegant piece of business logic: The entire device seems to be stripped back to that function, and that function alone,” he says. The general-use tablet, by contrast, feels generic.
Amazon seems compelled to make a phone largely because there’s lots of friction for its customers trying to buy things through Amazon using iPhones or Galaxies. You can’t buy a Kindle book through the Kindle mobile app because Amazon is unwilling to share the revenue of that cost with Apple or Google (GOOG). With its own phone, Amazon can control the entire experience.
So while the 3D display may make headlines at first, the truly important features are going to be how Amazon makes buying things on its phone so easy that people do more of it. In this sense the Dash, even though it’s not yet a visible face of Amazon’s design vision, serves as the best barometer for the upcoming smartphone. While the Dash makes it easy for customers to shop in their kitchens, a successful Amazon smartphone would extend that smooth shopping to every corner of commerce in daily life. “Why have a wand,” asks Mod, “when everyone has a phone?”