Saturday, April 13, 2024

Panos Panay’s eye for detail is exactly what Amazon’s lackluster hardware division needs

Immediately after Panay’s departure was announced, there was plenty of speculation about why and where Panay would end up. Business Insider reported that Panay left, in part, due to Microsoft streamlining its hardware lineup to the core Surface products and eliminating or postponing the more experimental products such as Microsoft’s Surface Duo smartphone.

The timing of Panay’s announcement was awkward, at best, as he’s known for being overly passionate when announcing new products, and it didn’t quite make sense for him to leave Microsoft just three days before the latest Surface products were set to be announced, well… something just felt off.

And then, on Wednesday, Amazon announced Panay would replace Dave Limp. Limp led Amazon’s devices and services for the last 13 years. Originally, Limp announced he was retiring, but it’s since been revealed he’ll become CEO of the Jeff Bezos company, Blue Origin.

Limp made Alexa a household name and has grown Amazon’s own hardware and product lineup to what it is today with the likes of Echo smart speakers, displays, the Fire Tablet lineup that’s surely a hit with parents, and helping refine product roadmaps for Eero, Blink, and Ring; all companies Amazon acquired.

But Wednesday’s announcement that Panay is joining Amazon’s team has piqued my interest and, frankly, has me very excited about the future of Amazon’s hardware products and, maybe, for the first time ever, Alexa.

Why? Panay brings an infectious amount of passion to the table, and with that comes new ideas, attention to detail, and the willingness to think outside the box, fail, iterate, and then try again.

amazon fire tablet review image 1

You don’t have to look hard to see just how basic most of Amazon’s hardware products are. Amazon’s Fire Tablet lineup is a prime example. Fire tablets have plastic housings, a screen that’s just alright, and performance that’s just enough to keep your kid entertained while on a long road trip and or for basic tasks, but that’s about it. Fire Tablets are designed to be inexpensive, if not disposable.

If I had to guess, the internal ethos for design at Amazon was to design something that would get the job done for as cheap as possible. I can’t think of the last time the hardware experience of an Amazon device wowed me.

Remember that Amazon’s Worldwide Digital division, which includes Alexa and hardware teams, was reportedly on pace to lose $10 billion in 2022.

But when you look at Microsoft’s product lineup under Panay’s tenure, there’s been a steady stream of Surface products that have all been well-designed and received and continuously pushed Microsoft’s hardware ambitions forward.

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 in laptop mode with attached blue keyboard on a countertop.

And that’s where customers like you and I will benefit from a change of the guard at Amazon. Based on his track record at Microsoft and judging by the sheer excitement and passion he’ll bring, the approach to design and functionality of Amazon’s hardware is bound to improve. I can envision a new Echo Show 15 with a kickstand similar to what the Surface lineup uses instead of having a cumbersome stand that you must manipulate to adjust the screen’s angle.

But at the same time, Panay’s biggest challenge will be walking the line between improving the overall quality and design of Amazon products while staying true to Amazon’s low-cost approach. How does he balance Amazon’s approach to hardware with improving the design, quality, and functionality of Echo, Kindle, Fire tablets, and maybe even another Fire phone?

(Side note: If you’re reading this Panos, please make adding USB-C to the Kindle Oasis a day-one priority. How has it not happened already?!?)

Amazon’s entire approach to hardware has been to sell it at or below cost and then make up the loss by selling its services – even if that meant people were buying more Amazon products.

But Panay’s approach with the Surface line has been to push the conversation forward about what a computer could or should be – does anyone remember the Surface Book 3 and its detachable display? Or what about the Surface Laptop Studio that looks like a normal laptop at first glance, but with a little pressure in the right area, the gorgeous display rotates and folds onto its deck, and you’re now using a tablet.

Amazon Echo Pop from the front in teal

Perhaps Amazon will end up with its core Echo and Fire tablet line with slight improvements to design and materials, with a minimal impact on the overall cost, and then another, more premium line of products.

While I haven’t focused on it all that much, Panay was also in charge of Windows, specifically Windows 11, during his time at Microsoft. And if there’s another area besides hardware where Amazon can use even more help, it’s with the software that powers its devices, such as the Fire tablets and Echo Show smart displays. The software is, once again, good enough to get the job done, but it doesn’t surprise and delight by any means.

Whatever changes Panay ushers into Amazon’s hardware and services division won’t happen overnight. Panay will take some time to learn the inner workings of the Amazon way and slowly implement changes, but I can’t wait until we start to see his influence and impact on Amazon’s products. Who knows, maybe it’ll even entice me enough to actually keep an Echo speaker or display setup in my home for longer than a week.


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