Alexa smartphone: Amazon's next strike in the mobile IoT war?

Google and Apple are behind in the Internet of Things, but they have the leading mobile platforms.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer on
(Image: ZDNet)

As I discussed in a previous article, Amazon's Alexa is now at the center of my home automation universe. And while there are some downsides and the integration isn't absolutely perfect, I happen to like it a lot.

The Seattle-based e-tailer, consumer cloud video and music content services and commercial cloud hosting giant has proven that it is a huge force to be reckoned with in IoT.Google and Apple have both released their own home automation hubs, but for the most part, they are way behind in terms of partner inertia and IoT integration with their own device ecosystems.

In the IoT space, the two Silicon Valley technology houses are merely also-rans, and while some of their newer offerings might be (questionably) better than what Amazon has -- such as Google's Nest Hello video doorbell, which was recently released with better features and UX than Ring (which reached the market much earlier and Amazon acquired recently), Amazon with its Echo products and Alexa is clearly the 800-pound gorilla in IoT and has gathered significantly larger market visibility and mindshare.

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However, Amazon does not have control over the mobile device space. And that is a serious gap for the company because it will never achieve significant integration with Android and iOS based on the fact it is competing heavily with both Apple in Google in IoT.

It has an "app for that" on both platforms for Alexa, but it can never really run on the metal like Siri or Google Assistant does. Naturally, Amazon needs is its own mobile device ecosystem.

Is it time for Amazon to release a new phone?

I hear the sounds of derisive laughter. Amazon, as we recall, did try to release its own smartphone, the Fire Phone, in June 2014. It was discontinued a year later, and it had problems even blowing the things out for $50 through partner liquidation channels.

The team at Lab126, the highly secretive department that works on Amazon's hardware devices such as Echo and the Kindle, had to lay off the entire engineering team behind Fire Phone.

It was a huge embarrassment. The FireOS-based phone was a bit expensive compared to its competitors, it had a somewhat gimmicky multi-camera system, and it only had a single carrier partner, AT&T. And there were a bunch of app gaps for things people enjoyed on iOS and "real" Android.

The value proposition wasn't really there.

Read also: Big Bezos: Amazon Alexa controls my entire freakin' house

But it is now nearly April 2018. It is a good four years later, and the company is now in a much different position than it was before. The Alexa business is very strong, as is Amazon Web Services, and the company's consumer cloud services offerings for Prime are that much better than they were previously.

Amazon still has its own Appstore for Android, and it still builds FireOS-based Kindle Fire tablets which have a pretty decent following. There is clearly also a very strong Alexa ecosystem in place with partners and platform integrations they can dip into for ongoing development, as well.

So, after licking its wounds, is it time for Amazon to release a new phone? Possibly. But I think it needs to do something different this time.

Enter: Huawei and ZTE

For starters, I think Amazon needs to build out partnerships with hardware OEMs that would be highly incentivized to work with them -- vendors that, like Amazon, are also in between a rock and a hard place in terms of getting initial market adoption.

I'm talking about Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE, which are having extreme difficulty making inroads in the US market due to the current political climate.

We know Huawei (especially) and ZTE can make damn good phones and can build them very inexpensively when compared to Samsung or even LG. They have excellent vertical integration, as well.

Read also: Alexa video calling and messaging coming to tablets

And, certainly, Amazon would be hard-pressed to work with firms already working with Google on AndroidOne devices and vice-versa.

So, I see these as natural pairings, and they make a heck of a lot of sense. But Amazon has to do much more than just use existing designs at Huawei and ZTE and slap FireOS on it and call it a day.

The tight Alexa integration with FireOS is going to have to be a natural. But AlexaOS (or whatever Amazon ends up re-brandingthis as) has to actually be a better Android than Android in order to be a complete value proposition.

It can't be an also-ran smartphone OS. There have to be compelling reasons to use this beyond the fact it has Amazon stuff on it -- even if it is cheaper than premium alternatives from Samsung and Google or Apple.

And, yes, the UX for the basic OS has to be really good, or consumers are going to reject it outright. But that's the least of it.

Partnering with 'frenemies'

Amazon also has to close some key functionality gaps. And the only way I see it doing this is with partnerships that it may consider to be "frenemies" today. I would consider those to be very shrewd business decisions if it decided to do that.

First and foremost is Microsoft -- which has things like email/calendaring clients (Outlook) and numerous other mature (and quite excellent) Android apps it can bring to the OS image by default.

Sure, Amazon and Microsoft compete in the commercial cloud space, but they complement each other in the consumer space, for the most part.

They both hate Google and Apple more than they hate each other, and if they can agree to certain things -- such as the disposition of Alexa versus Cortana -- there is a great deal they can do to help each other.

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They are both Pacific Northwest-based companies, and they both can't stand Silicon Valley, so they have that much in their favor and in common already.

Next is the issue of mapping and navigation. Let's face it: Amazon and Microsoft don't really have anything that competes well with Google Maps and its huge location database complete with business ratings.

The natural partner I see providing this functionality is Uber. The company has made massive investments in GIS, and it already has a driver navigation app and a consumer app that can be altered for the purposes of tightly integrating into a theoretical Alexa smartphone device.

Today, Uber uses the Google Maps API for its software, but it has committed significant resources to building its own mapping engine. I can think of no better incentive for it to move this along than by advancing a partnership with Amazon.

What if some kind of Uber discount or perk was built into these phones? There are many people who don't own cars in the urban areas, where the ride-sharing service is extremely popular, and who are addicted to Uber's services already. I would expect that Amazon and Uber share a ton of customers in similar demographics, as well.

Another partner or even potential acquisition target for providing key data is Yelp. Frankly, I'd love to see Amazon buy Yelp just to add some discipline to that company -- talk about an awful management culture and largely unregulated consumer review business -- and update its aging, poorly designed app front ends on both the Android and iOS platforms.

Yes, Amazon competes with both Yelp and Uber in the food delivery business, but those issues can be worked out.

It has to be stupidly easy

I also believe that in order for Amazon to be successful with its own smartphone OS, it has to do this via a consortium and an open-kimono approach -- not entirely in secret like it does with the rest of its Lab126 stuff.

It has to get the partnerships done before it releases any of this stuff, and it needs a solid open-source collaborative model. It can be (and has to be) Amazon-led, but it also has to allow any OEM to enter, and it cannot make developing for this platform harder than it is to develop for Android.

It has to be stupidly easy to convert existing Android apps over and to re-map Google services APIs to Amazon- and partner-based ones. Do you know which company has really good Android and iOS cross-platform developer tools for this? Microsoft.

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I also feel that it has to embrace an open-carrier model. AT&T cannot be the only partner. It has to be a bring your own SIM-type of thing, and I would say that, for an initial US and European launch, T-Mobile has to be able to participate, as well. Perhaps being the bring your own SIM supplier front-runner even.

Frankly, because of the Qualcomm CDMA licensing aspect, it might be hard to bring in Verizon or Sprint with anything made by Huawei (ZTE has committed to Qualcomm for the next generation of its technology, however), but I think this is the least of Amazon's challenges if it wanted to get back into the mobile business.

Can Amazon return to the mobile business successfully with an Alexa phone using some very smart partnerships? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Previous and related coverage

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