AmazonFireTV_Side_Popcorn

Amazon today announced the Amazon Fire TV, a set-top box that costs $99 and will begin shipping today.

The device was designed to address three problems Amazon saw with existing set-top boxes: frustrating search tools, slow video streaming, and closed ecosystems that favor some services over others. The result is a minuscule device designed with speed in mind, a new feature that predicts videos you might want to watch and prepares them for streaming, and the ability to access Amazon Prime TV, Netflix, YouTube, and a variety of other streaming video services.

Amazon has also ignored the complicated remotes associated with most set-top boxes and the frustrating aluminum sliver that ships with the Apple TV, instead focusing on a remote control with an embedded microphone. The device allows Amazon Fire TV owners to search through its catalog of videos based on title and actor. The Verge reports that the voice search worked well during Amazon’s live demo, but it’s worth remembering that it was also showing off a new product in a highly controlled setting, not in a real living room.

The Amazon Fire TV will also offer access to music services and games in the coming months. The games can be controlled with the Fire TV’s remote, a companion tablet app, or the new Fire TV game controller that will cost another $40 and come with 1,000 Amazon coins — the virtual currency used to purchase games and add-ons in Amazon’s Appstore.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Amazon Fire TV is its ability to demonstrate the sheer size of Amazon’s services. It doesn’t just offer access to thousands of videos: it also shows their ratings through the Amazon-owned IMDb service, allows Amazon to get its television shows in front of a larger audience, and serves as another glorified catalog for Amazon’s marketplaces. It’s using its vast infrastructure to support a decent voice search tool along with X-Ray, a feature that offers details about a film, television show, or song whenever an Amazon Fire TV owner wants. And it’s branching out into games with support from developers like Sega, Ubisoft, and Disney in addition to the games it has developed as part of its Amazon Games Studios division.

Amazon isn’t stepping into the set-top box market so much as it’s using a hunk of plastic to connect its many video-related efforts with a single device. That would also help Amazon prove it’s a tech company that happens to sell products, not the other way around.

Pando weighs in

I wrote about Amazon’s set-top box ambitions in June 2013:

Some of the world’s largest technology companies are eyeing your entertainment center. Google has its Google TV platform and has dabbled in its own hardware, albeit with disastrous results. Apple can’t organize an event or conduct a conference call without being harangued about when it will make the Apple TV more than a “hobby.” Microsoft has used the Xbox platform to leapfrog its competitors and create the first smart television worth purchasing. These companies’ products already pervade our offices, backpacks, and pockets — now they want to become a fixture of the living room as well.

Amazon is thinking a little bigger. It isn’t just fighting to make its way into the living room. It’s trying to insert itself into every aspect of your daily life. And it might be closer to doing so than anyone realizes. Let’s take a tour through your home and see how Amazon is trying to monetize each room.

Then I explained how Amazon uses hardware to advertise its true products in September:

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has long said that Amazon doesn’t intend to make money by selling its e-readers or tablets to consumers. Better to sell these glorified sales catalogs on the cheap and recoup costs when people use them to shop at Amazon’s many online stores. It’s a proven tactic, as the many app developers and game-makers who offer their products for free and then make fortunes by offering in-app purchases can attest. The only difference is that Amazon offers everything from best-selling novels to television sets and views the entire world as a window through which customers — Bezos is careful to say “customers” instead of “consumers,” as if every shopper is already using Amazon — can shop its stores.

The original Kindle Fire was clearly a product of this thinking. It cost much less than the iPad but was also far less capable. Its software was buggy and shipped without basic features, such as an email client or calendar. The dedicated apps marketplace was barren compared to Apple’s App Store, and its hardware was unremarkable. If it weren’t for its low price and easy access to Amazon’s stores, the Kindle Fire would have been a flop.