Today, Amazon announced the Amazon Cloud Drive. I think it is the first salvo in a series of steps that will lead Amazon to compete directly for the primary computing platform for individuals, as an online platform, as a device operating system, and as a maker of branded tablets.
Much of the attention is going to the Amazon Cloud Player, announced at the same time, which enables customers to stream music stored in Cloud Drive – Forrester’s Mark Mulligan blogged about that for Consumer Product Strategists (Amazon Beats Apple and Google to the Locker Room). But the general purpose design of Cloud Drive, combined with the long-term opportunities for personal cloud services, lead to a really interesting set of possibilities and insights into Amazon’s long-term strategy for Vendor Strategists trying to sort out the technologies and players of next-generation personal computing platforms.
Amazon has just beaten Apple and Google to market with a cloud-based music locker service. As with the anticipated Apple and Google services, the Amazon cloud music product enables users to upload and stream their music on multiple devices (in this instance, on PCs, Macs, and Android phones and tablets – though not iPhones nor iPads). All US Amazon customers start with 5GB free and can then upgrade for $20 a year to 20GB, but buying an MP3 album at Amazon will automatically give the extra 20GB for free.
There are, of course, rights controversies around locker services. Digital music stalwart Michael Robertson is currently locked in legal combat with EMI over his cloud locker service MP3Tunes. The important factor with this service is that Amazon requires customers to upload their music file by file and store them rather than matching them against a cloud-based central repository of music, much in the same way that Carphone Warehouse currently does in the UK with its Catch Media-powered cloud locker service. (Which can be a pretty painful process for users. Remember the first time you ripped all of your CD collection? Now imagine doing that over the Internet . . .)
The rights issues, though of course important, aren’t the really interesting points here. What is interesting is why Amazon has done this, and what this means for the wider digital music marketplace.
Forrester published a new report today making the call that the iPad challengers that have been announced so far—Android Honeycomb tablets from Motorola, Toshiba, and others, as well as the BlackBerry PlayBook and HP TouchPad—are solid products with fatally flawed product strategies.
In short, competing tablets are too expensive, and can’t match the Apple Store as a channel. These two claims are related: Forrester’s research has shown that consumers attribute more value to Apple products because of the in-store service. Consumers are not only comparing feeds and speeds; there’s also a human factor. The humans working in the Apple Store will have a huge impact teaching consumers about the iPad and how to use it. Compare the experience of walking into an Apple Store, where the iPad is front and center, to walking into a Verizon store where the Samsung Galaxy Tab is collecting dust at the back of the store and the sales reps don’t quite know what to make of it. Or walking into a Best Buy store, whose shelves will soon be lined with similar-looking tablets with similar functionality.
When Jeff Bezos announced to his Amazon staff his concept for the Amazon Marketplace in November 2000, many people — inside and outside Amazon — thought he was crazy. Amazon was inviting in other sellers — individuals and merchants — to compete against Amazon’s owned inventory on Amazon.com. As full price merchants were added in categories such as consumer electronics, apparel, and baby products in the early 2000s, the head shaking continued. To paraphrase, Jeff Bezos claimed this was about “the world of perfect information.” Customers are going to find the lowest price online if they really want to, and they should be trained to find it on Amazon. Maybe Amazon could grab a piece of the pie along the way.
Of course, what was once seen as crazy is now viewed with envy, as the marketplace now represents approximately 35% of Amazon’s revenues and 30% of total units sold in Q4 2010.* Amazon charges anywhere from a 5% to a 25% revenue share on a sale through its marketplace, roughly determined by dividing the expected margins in a category in half — to be shared with the merchant. With only limited incremental technology and category management costs, the profitability of this for Amazon is easy to see. And as a result, it has also solidified Amazon’s role as the leading product search site. This success is already breeding imitators in Buy.com, Sears, Walmart, NewEgg, and soon a whole host of large UK retailers. And let’s not ignore Apple’s iTunes, clearly a very successful marketplace, though of a somewhat different flavor.