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.
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.
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.
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.
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.