In an HBR article 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.
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.
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.
Monday, October 03, 2011
The Kindle Fire and Disruptive Innovation
Horace Dediu makes The case against the Kindle as a low end tablet disruption. In particular, Dediu is arguing that tablets are not a sufficiently mature product to be commoditized, so there is demand in the market for improvements to both the hardware and the software. Unfortunately, Amazon will likely focus their resources on improving their infrastructure for content sales, rather than the devices themselves. The entire article is worth reading!