An Amazon Smart Plug outlet sits on display at the Inc. Spheres headquarters during an unveiling event in Seattle, Washington, U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Burton/Bloomberg)

The Real Reason Amazon Made A $25 Alexa Plug

(Bloomberg) -- I trust you’re sitting comfortably on the edge of your seat, because today we’re going to talk about plugs and the electrical outlets we all have in our homes. I’ve been weirdly fascinated by them ever since a good friend of mine in 2009 wrote a feature called “Plug Versus Plug,” in which he attempted to isolate the country with the most superior industrial design (tl;dr summary: it was Britain.)

I was reminded of this last week during a meeting with Rich Suplee, head of Amazon’s Alexa business in Europe. We were discussing the dizzying array of products the Seattle-based web retailer had recently announced — including an Alexa-compatible microwave and a smart wall clock — that had left some journalists scratching their heads.

I told him I was perplexed by the Amazon Smart Plug. This $25 product (or 25 pounds in the U.K.) lets you connect lamps, air conditioners, hosepipes, or indeed any other product that connects to a wall socket, to Amazon’s Alexa service. I asked Suplee what the point of this really was.

“It's an affordable and easy way for people to get a start on smart home control,” he said.

I had to disagree. “I think 25 pounds for a plug is very expensive, for what it is,” I said. If I just bought one for each of my lamps and the heat mat that warms the tank containing my giant African land snails, I’d be spending well into triple figures.

Suplee’s response shed light on Amazon’s real motive for showcasing such a variety of surprising products. He said what he was “really excited about” is that the plug is a great reference design for other device-makers to copy.

“You see that with the microwave,” he said. “We create it to make sure it works really well, and it invigorates our partners to follow suit and do the same thing.”

He described the strategy as being “a little bit of a different approach than just doing a product,” and I see that now: Amazon wants some of these creations to be replicated, stimulating a range of traditionally “dumb” devices to be reimagined with Alexa at their heart.

It’s as if the Greeks had told the residents of Troy that they’d absolutely no objection to anyone copying their schematics for a Trojan horse — just as long as each one subsequently built contained at least 40 Greek warriors.

It’s a strategy used the world over, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Intel once created a reference design for a tabletop bowl that wirelessly charged any products thrown into it, although nothing like it ever went on sale; meanwhile, I still firmly believe Microsoft initially began making sleek Windows-powered Surface tablet computers to kick-start the rest of the industry into upping their game and competing better with Apple’s iPad. That strategy paid off, and earlier this month Microsoft announced the latest upgrades to the product line, now in its sixth year.

Long distance wireless power is still seemingly years away — Apple and other manufacturers are still struggling to convert the world to close range charging — so Amazon has plenty of time to stimulate the market with its accessory strategy. And I for one am extremely pleased, as it makes the likelihood ever greater that I can convince my friend to write a new version of his magnum opus, “Plug Versus Plug.”

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