When Amazon gets involved with anything, it gets exciting. eBooks were a novelty before the Kindle made buying, installing, and reading them easy, building a technological platform around a concern for human behavior. It’s what makes Amazon a great company: It typically has an understanding of the core consumer, and the scale to realize new visions for the mass market.
It’s just too bad that Amazon didn’t bring this same approach to 3-D printing. Its new storefront launched yesterday. And rather than offering any sort of useful printed good, it teamed with a small handful of production firms, like 3DLT and Mixee Labs to sell bobbleheads, puzzles, miniature plastic swords, and some geek jewelry. Some of it's customizable, some of it's not. But to put this as succinctly as I can, Amazon’s new store is filled with a bunch of 3-D printed tchotchke crap—the same stuff that makes people like me highly skeptical that 3-D printing will reach the mass market any time soon.
Amazon isn’t offering a meaningful experience to its customers. (I mean, unless you think buying a cartoon bobblehead that has been poorly rendered in sandstone but in virtually no way resembles your person is a meaningful experience.) Instead, Amazon is selling a bunch of mediocre proof of concept iPhone cases and lampshades. It's selling 3-D printing as a buzzword, a "yeah, we have that!" feature to be listed on a PowerPoint slide at its next board meeting.
But whereas it's easy to understand how 3-D printing is already benefitting designers and manufacturers, why should the fact that something is 3-D printed intrinsically matter to a consumer? Is there any inherit benefit to an object just because it was spit out of a 3-D printer rather than a traditional factory? Of course not, yet Amazon's presentation of the idea seems to imply that there is.
Just think what Amazon could have done here, if it really put its minds to it and got the right industry partnerships in place, if it leveraged what 3-D printing could offer its customers beyond a headline.
Amazon is uniquely positioned to offer the first truly approachable customization platform for the mass consumer—a way to entice everyday people to become their own designers and take a greater part in crafting their own goods. Of course, this challenge is enormous. No one's articulated such a vision yet. But Amazon has millions of visitors arrive every day who are already looking to buy something. If anyone could introduce such a platform, it's Amazon.
Another possibility requires a lot less from its customers: Amazon has a library full of all sorts of things you’ve bought yourself. Now say you lost the battery cover on your remote control. Amazon could instantly look up the remote, reference the specs, and print you out a replacement to be shipped to your door via Prime. Even this one use case, as silly as it may seem, would be highly monetizable. Amazon could build on the existing infrastructure offer warranties, not just for the replacement of goods, but for the 3-D printed replacement of goods. Could it print everything? Of course not. But maybe this low-cost alternative would be good enough for some meaningful percentage of items.
Could these examples revolutionize Amazon's business? Maybe. Maybe not. But what took me 30 seconds to think up is better than what Amazon is selling us now, and that’s absurd. Because while you may think there’s no harm in cashing in on 3-D printing for its novelty factor alone, consumers have a long memory when it comes to bad experiences.
Consider the prehistoric era of tablets: Apple's intriguing but flawed Newton and Microsoft’s bulky foray into tablet computing, whose unusable design made the space a bit of a joke nobody wanted to touch until the iPad came around (while Wall Street and analysts still held their breath as to how it would be received). Or look at what just happened with 3-D televisions, a poorly—but widely—implemented standard that was shunned by consumers in the last few years. So much so that it forced the industry to stop trying to figure out how to make a delightful 3-D display and return to their old game of making higher and higher resolution screens.
You can’t sell technology without making it both accessible and meaningful to consumers, and when you ignore those factors, it can set true innovation back for everyone else.
Amazon, you know better.
[Hat tip: CNN]