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What's behind Amazon’s baffling decision to ban Apple TV and Chromecast?

Amazon’s decision to ban sales of Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast and Nexus Player from its retail store, including its partner stores, somehow manages to be both a total surprise and not a surprise at all.

Read next: The Apple TV review.

It’s not surprising because everyone’s gotten used to a multi-front platform cold war, where the big tech companies try to outmaneuver each other by controlling as much of their own ecosystems as possible, while grudgingly granting and denying access to each other’s products and services depending on the deals and strategic advantage available. I mean, this is basically the reason Amazon’s Prime Video service isn’t on Apple’s or Google’s video devices in the first place.

This is not the official explanation. A spokesperson released this statement to reporters on Thursday:

Over the last three years, Prime Video has become an important part of Prime. It’s important that the streaming media players we sell interact well with Prime Video in order to avoid customer confusion. Roku, XBOX, PlayStation and Fire TV are excellent choices.

(At press time, an Amazon spokesperson declined to answer further questions on this decision.)

Just like Apple, Google, Facebook, or Microsoft, Amazon is a big, diversified tech company now, with a lot of pieces that all need to work together (and lots of internal stakeholders making sure no other part of the business is making their business more difficult). On top of that, Amazon in particular is known to play hardball, especially when its executives think their product has an advantage. Pulling book publishers’ entire lists from its store over price disputes is just one example. (Apple, too, has been known to pull products from its store for similar reasons.) Take those two pieces — the platform strategy tax, and the retail monopolist — and put them together, and it suddenly seems amazing that Amazon ever sold Apple and Google video devices in the first place.

So what’s changed? Given the timing, it’s hard to avoid concluding that Amazon is responding to changes in Apple TV. There's a new one coming with a huge marketing push to go with it. The new Apple TV hits virtually all of the competitive advantages the Fire TV previously enjoyed: universal voice search, games, and an app store. It's not crazy to think that Amazon wants to do whatever it can to make sure that it doesn't gain too much traction as to become the default set-top box. It’s using the biggest lever it has: its own retail store. Including Chromecast and Android TV may just be a feint, a fig leaf, a post hoc justification. Amazon may not be able to put a brake on sales if Apple TV becomes a hit, but it doesn’t have to contribute to them.

The solution to Amazon's posited problem is to just put Prime Video on those platforms. Maybe it can't — or maybe it won't.

Chromecast 2

On its face, it’s insane that the biggest e-retailer in the world, looking at the stunningly lucrative consumer electronics market, would stop selling some of its biggest sellers. As of this writing, Google Chromecast was the sixth-best seller in Amazon’s US electronics store, and Apple TV was 14th — two of just a handful of non-Amazon products at the top of the list.

What is the endgame here? In Amazon’s standoffs with publishers, it’s always been clear what Amazon’s side wanted: lower wholesale costs and full discretion over retail prices. Here, it’s not clear at all what the Amazon side wants.

Does it hope to pressure Apple or Google to add Amazon Prime to their devices? This is probable. In 2013, I was told, by someone who was certainly in a position to know, that Amazon expected Prime Video would be on the Apple TV by the end of that year, and certainly it would be on the Apple TV and Chromecast before Amazon released its own video player. (That happened a year and a half ago.) Amazon’s team is fueled by three years of frustration. But both Apple and Google now have open processes for developers to make and submit apps for their TV platforms, just like Amazon has done for the iPad and Android tablets. If Amazon just wanted to get its app on the new Apple TV, it would be hard for Apple to refuse them.

Is Amazon looking for concessions on payments made through the third-party devices, or some other detail? Always! But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Is it hoping that the absence of the other popular video players will goose sales of Fire TV? Maybe! It could also simply be all of the above.

Is Amazon standing on principle? It’s not as if Amazon holds or has ever held this policy beyond digital video. Look at ebook readers in Amazon’s electronic store. You’ll find e-readers and tablets by Barnes & Noble and Kobo, Boyue, and Key Ingredient right below the Kindles. Nobody’s confused about whether or not you can read ebooks from Amazon on those devices.

The power of controlling the portal is more important than the specific thing people find at the end of it

But Amazon sells them, just like Google lists Amazon in its search results and Microsoft lets Apple put iTunes on Windows PCs. And for good reason. The power of controlling the portal is more important than the specific thing people find at the end of it. And when Amazon stacks the Kindle against other e-readers and tablets directly, it does a pretty good job of selling Kindles. The company, flatly, is good at retail — not because it relentlessly curates its storefront, but because it lets a million flowers bloom.

The way Amazon works — the way it has always worked — is that Amazon.com is the internet retailer of first resort. Whether you’re a casual or a dedicated customer, what’s projected is if you can’t buy it on Amazon, it doesn’t exist — and you didn’t want it anyway.

Traditionally, the point of Prime Video — the point of Amazon Prime — is for streaming video, discounted shipping, and other services to serve as a loss leader for retail sales. Maybe you get the subscription to watch videos, but you use it to buy things in the store. It’s the same way Wal-Mart gets you into the store with cheap books or DVDs, but gets you to leave the store with a new television set. It’s an old, powerful model that happens to work.

The ban on Apple and Google devices suggests that this balance has shifted. Amazon is not necessarily a retailer first. Now, the point of Prime Video might not just be to juice retail sales. The point of Prime Video is to sell Prime Video — and to support the broader Amazon-branded ecosystem.

Fire TV stick

I’ve been so confused by Amazon’s decision, I asked for help. James McQuivey and Sucharita Mulpuru are analysts at Forrester, with McQuivey focusing on digital disruptions and Mulpuru on retail. It turned out that they were puzzled about many of the same things as I was, but they also offered insight.

"In all [of Amazon’s] actions, what I think is consistent, is the self-serving nature of their positions and dubious sincerity around anything they actually say," Mulpuru said, adding that Amazon’s customer-first rhetoric has often been a ruse to improve its own position.

"To claim that it's about ‘confusion’ is ludicrous," she says. "They could solve that by putting verbiage on their product detail page and in packaging that the items aren't compatible with Prime Video or whatever they think the cause of confusion is. I think it's pretty clear that this is about a push for market share in the increasingly competitive media world where the hardware is a powerful hook into the customer's home."

"Maybe the conversation got ugly and Amazon got huffy, and it led to this."

For McQuivey, the ban is likely the consequence of an "escalating conversation behind closed doors" that got out of hand. "I have to assume that there were behind-the-scenes conversations that involved Amazon trying to persuade these other companies to put Amazon Prime — clearly the number two paid streaming service in the US — on their devices. And maybe the conversation got ugly and Amazon got huffy, and it led to this," he says.

What McQuivey is most surprised by is that Amazon was willing to give up not just the sales revenue from Apple and Google video devices, but the data. Amazon could create an entire picture of Apple and Google’s customers — correlating their preferences, their other purchases, et cetera — to create a total map of its own markets. (The other possibility, he says, is that Amazon’s team already had such a picture and didn’t like what the data was telling them.)

However, McQuivey adds that the standoff may also be a function of the relative strength of Prime Video. "Award-winning shows, exclusive access to top content from other channels … Amazon Prime video is meaningfully differentiated in a way that iTunes and Google Play can't touch." In other words, Amazon may be more inclined to play poker because the company has a better hand.

This may all turn out to be posturing. Ultimately, it’s in Apple’s and Google’s interests to open up their television platform, as they’re beginning to do, just as it’s in Amazon’s interests to get its services on as many devices as possible and to sell anything and everything under the sun — the strategy it’s pursued so successfully for two decades.

The worst-case scenario is a continued creep toward the old telephone company model, with services, devices, ads, the tech stack, and the applications all being run by a single company. That’s the sort of customer-hostile practices the technology industry has always claimed it’s helped move us away from. But with each company devoting more and more resources to combat its rivals, everyone else — the partners, the independents, and especially the customers — can too easily pay the price.

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