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The Amazon Dash button was a physical interface to digital shopping

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Button of the Month: Amazon Dash button

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Shopping on Amazon is a vastly digital experience. Until the last few years, there hasn’t been a physical way to go and buy things from Amazon. For the overwhelming majority of Amazon purchases, there’s still no checkout lane, no aisles to browse, no physical interactions at all — famously, the company’s “One Click” software removes nearly all barriers between wanting something and buying it.

Amazon’s now-defunct Dash buttons — small, Wi-Fi connected pods with a single button on them that would reorder a specific product — were meant to change that when they were introduced in 2015. They offered a physical manifestation of that traditional Amazon experience: buy what you need with just one click.

The Dash button was a fascinating product, representing Amazon’s most brazen play for entering into your physical space to sell you stuff. Sure, Echo speakers and Fire tablets can access the Amazon store, but it’s not their primary function in the same way that the Dash Buttons existed exclusively to buy. It’s almost a bizarre idea — customers went out and bought purpose-built tools from Amazon that only lets you buy more things from Amazon. It was clever too, cloaked in the bold and colorful logos of whatever brands your dash buttons were for; an Amazon wolf hidden in the sheep’s clothing of your favorite product.

But despite that, the Dash button only somewhat succeeded. On paper, it was fine: a functional product that bridged the gap between the digital Amazon store and the real world. Run out of coffee or diapers? Just press the button and more will be on its way. And the ability to put buttons by devices that would need them was brilliant, letting customers order more detergent just as they used the last of it on a load of laundry, for example.

But the Dash buttons failed because as hardware, they were just too limited. Compared to the Amazon website, the Dash button didn’t offer one of the best conveniences of online shopping: being able to easily compare prices and buy whatever’s cheapest. And while that’s great for something like Doritos, where imitators simply won’t cut it, it’s less useful for ordinary household goods like garbage bags, paper towels, or soap where brand names are less of a priority than price. There were also issues with the fact that prices on Amazon tend to fluctuate a lot, so you could never really be sure what you’d be paying on any given press (a fact that saw the buttons banned in Germany due to consumer protection laws there).

Plus, for products that truly did benefit from the buttons (like printers with specific cartridge requirements), the buttons fell victim to their own success as smart devices began to take over: Amazon’s Dash Replenishment service meant that customers didn’t need a bespoke button for ordering more printer ink or water filters — their Wi-Fi connected products could already do it for you.

And that’s really the post-mortem for Dash, which was always a stopgap. Plus, one can argue that Amazon succeeded, in a way: Dash is dead, but the companies hardware and software and services have an even greater hold on your home than ever before. Just not in button form.