Amazon Strikes Its Match With Fire TV

Looking at the email Amazon users received yesterday announcing the new Fire TV device, there’s little to distinguish it from, say, Apple TV, including the $99 price and a gaming capacity its handlers say isn’t really what it’s about. But it’s not really about what it delivers now that also might set it apart from Roku and Google Chromecast, commentators are pointing out, as it is about what it might deliver in the future: highly targeted advertising, perhaps in novel ways.

Amazon is looking at its Fire TV streaming device as its “beachhead in the living room,” as the New York Times’ hed puts it. It’s “a big step toward a future in which shopping and video are tightly linked, perhaps even inseparable,” Brian Streitfeld elaborates in his lede. “If Amazon has its way — and it did not become one of the country’s most valuable companies by drifting with the current — even watching home movies of your sister’s adorable children or a friend’s crazy cat will become marketing opportunities.

Heretofore, that data has remained sacrosanct in the digital vaults of the cable companies that provide “the last mile” between marketplace nirvana and our humble abodes.

“To be clear, Wednesday’s press event was about the new product. Amazon executives didn’t discuss any ad-sales strategy they might have in mind and a call to an Amazon spokesman wasn’t immediately returned,” Mike Shields reports in the Wall Street Journal. “But if Fire TV catches on, Amazon could have a unique opportunity.”

Michael Bologna, head of GroupM’s Modi Media, tells Shields: “In theory, Amazon could send targeted ads to each individual household and that’s potentially more granular that we have in cable. All the stuff we’ve been talking about for years, targeting ads based on what kind of car people drive, whether they are a traveler or need dog food, we’re starting to do that, and I’ve talked to Amazon. Those guys want some of that.”

Who doesn’t?

“Everyone in technology wants to keep you in their ecosystem,” BTIG Research analyst Richard Greenfield tells Bloomberg Businessweek’s Brad Stone and Joshua Brustein. “Once you are in their ecosystem, they can sell you lots of stuff. And no one wants to sell you more than Amazon.”

In the meantime, this much we know to be real about the Fire TV device, courtesy of VentureBeat’s Devindra Hardawar: “It’s about as tall as a dime is wide”; its remote “fits well in your hand” and has an innovative microphone button on top; and its game control “seems shockingly dull and ugly.”

It’s a good thing, then, that Amazon Kindle VP Pete Larsen, who unwrapped the box at a press conference in New York, tells Engadget’s Ben Gilbert that the device “is absolutely not a game console.” Gilbert asked the logical follow-up: what is it, exactly?

"We didn't really think about that," Larsen replied. "We looked at what customers were doing with the current streaming media devices out. We tried to mine the customer reviews to find what was working and not working. And then we said to ourselves, 'How do we solve those problems?' Which we did, with performance, voice search and open ecosystem."

And, as Gilbert writes, Amazon has a history of “creating a market by creating a product,” with the Kindle as a market-disruptive case in point.

But this is not the device — yet, at least — that’s going to make that happen in our living rooms. In fact, writes Dan Gillmor on the Guardian.com, “As long as Big Content and Big Telecom exist in their current forms, it will be difficult for fans of video — and who isn't one? — to get what they really want: the freedom to watch and discover moving pictures where, how and whenever they choose.”

Wall Street wasn’t terribly impressed with the first iteration of the device, Kaja Whitehouse tells us in the New York Post. “The product solves a bunch of problems we didn’t know we had,” says Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter, referring to its speed and voice-activation remote. “This is an intermediate- to long-term strategic move,” observes Cantor Fitzgerald’s Youssef Squali.

But there are certainly yaysayers out there, too. Time’s Matt Peckham, for one, is a dedicated gamer who was excited enough about Amazon “throwing some actual muscle behind the micro-console gaming concept,” that he can’t wait for a Fire TV to arrive in his household today, where it will join a Roku 3, a second-gen Apple TV, an unusued Ouya, and PlayStations and Xboxes.

“I’m a sucker for first-party software — a thousand percent more interested in hardware-makers willing to give that angle a go than all these ones drafting off overloaded app stores flush with gaming bric-a-brac, attempting to transmogrify mobile gaming’s successes to the set-top arena,” he writes.

Disruption is one thing, we always say, attempts at transmogrification something else entirely.

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