In its quest to get more consumers to use its Fire TV products, Amazon announced an unusual partnership Wednesday: The company has teamed up with Best Buy to sell 11 TV sets powered by Amazon’s Fire smart TV operating system this year.
“We’re super excited about this partnership,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said during a media briefing with a handful of reporters in a Best Buy store near Amazon’s Seattle headquarters Tuesday.
As part of this multi-year partnership, Best Buy is becoming the exclusive retail partner to sell Fire TV Edition TVs, as these devices are officially called, made by Toshiba as well as Best Buy’s own house brand, Insignia. Best Buy will also sell the TV sets on its own website, and will for the first time in its history become an official Amazon seller and offer the devices through Amazon.com
But while there is an online component to this partnership, the clear emphasis is Best Buy’s footprint of roughly a thousand stores. “The only place in the world where you can see picture quality is the physical world,” said Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly. Bezos agreed, and argued that TVs are something that consumers research a lot. “For many people, it’s a very significant purchase,” he said.
Fire TV Edition TVs offer essentially the same user interface and apps as Amazon’s existing Fire TV streaming devices, with the addition of a few TV-specific features. This includes a live TV guide with program information for over-the-air broadcast channels as well as picture-in-picture-like previews of any connected devices, be it a Blu-ray player or a game console.
Wednesday’s announcement was short on some key technical details. We don’t know yet which display sizes the TV sets will have, or for how much they are going to sell. The 11 models that are going to ship this year will include both 4-K and HD TVs , which suggests that at least some of them will be on the more affordable side. Both companies said that they will start selling some TVs this summer, and announce additional details in time.
However, even without those details, the announcement is significant. For one thing, it demonstrates Amazon’s continued foray into the home, where it is already present with its own Fire TV streaming devices as well as tens of millions of Amazon Echo smart speakers.
But beyond that, the partnership between the e-commerce giant and the retail chain also shows Amazon’s increased ambitions to show off its products in physical retail locations, and its willingness to partner with perceived archrivals to do so
In other words: Maybe Amazon won’t kill Best Buy, after all.
That’s what some pundits had assumed when Best Buy fell on hard times amid the growth of online retail a few years back. Since then, Best Buy rebounded under the leadership of Joly, and Bezos professed Tuesday he had been closely watching Best Buy’s turnaround. He also argued that Amazon’s rivalry with traditional brick-and-mortar had been overhyped. “Amazon has always been a big believer in stores,” he said. “Physical stores aren’t going anywhere.”
Both CEOs were quick to point out that this was just the beginning of a multi-year partnership in the TV field, but neither company was willing to reveal its future plans. For now, Best Buy will be the only retailer to sell Toshiba and Insignia Fire TVs. Over time, one could imagine some of this hardware to show up in some of Amazon’s own stores as the e-commerce giant grows its physical footprint.
Likewise, Best Buy may carry TVs based on Amazon’s smart TV operating system from other brands in the future. “Over time the partnership will evolve to cover more sizes, more price points, more brands,” said Joly.
This could potentially also include TVs that offer direct access to Alexa. For the 11 models coming to Best Buy, consumers still have to press the microphone button on their remote control, or add an Amazon Echo speaker to their living room setup, to summon Amazon’s smart assistant.
However, Amazon has been working with a number of third-party manufacturers to bring far-field voice control and always-on microphones to speakers, fire alarms and other devices. Eventually, the same kind far-field voice control could show up in a smart TV as well. “There is lots of cool things we can do in the future,” said Amazon’s Fire TV VP Marc Whitten. “Stay tuned for more to come over the course of time,” added Best Buy senior executive VP Mike Mohan.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t Amazon’s first foray into the world of smart TVs. The company rolled out a partnership with budget TV brands Westinghouse, Element Electronics and Seiki a year ago. In addition, Amazon has also teamed up with Sony and Vizio to bring Alexa to their smart TVs. Those integrations come without Amazon’s Fire TV user interface, but still allow consumers to access Amazon’s smart assistant, and use it as a way to control their TV playback.
Likewise, Best Buy has partnerships with other players in the smart TV space. Not only does the retailer offer companies like Samsung and LG significant floor space, Best Buy has also teamed up with Roku to sell Insignia TVs powered by the company’s smart TV operating system.
Consumers do have a lot of choice, but there are still rifts in the smart TV space that also impact Insignia’s and Toshiba’s new Fire TV sets. Most notable is Amazon’s ongoing spat with Google, which came to the surface when the search giant blocked access to YouTube on Amazon’s Echo Show devices last year. That blocking was ostensibly about Amazon violating YouTube’s terms of service, but Google is also upset that Amazon isn’t selling its Chromecast streaming devices on Amazon.com.
On Tuesday, Best Buy’s Mohan said that consumers who buy an Insignia or Toshiba TV with Amazon’s Fire TV operating system will be able to access YouTube through built-in web browsers, a work-around that Amazon rolled out in late 2017 for its existing Fire TV devices. “Customers do that a lot,” said Amazon’s Whitten, adding that the company was continuing to work with Google to resolve its differences.
In the end, the partnership between Amazon and Best Buy is emblematic of how the two companies approach the TV space, and consumer electronics in general. Amazon wants to sell smart speakers and TVs to get consumers to sign up for its services, including free Prime shipping, Prime Video and its Amazon Music subscription service. Best Buy on the other hand simply wants to bring consumers to its stores and sell them devices.
In the past, Best Buy also tried to compete with the likes of Amazon in the field of media services. The company at one point owned the streaming music service Napster, as well as Cinemanow, a paid transactional online video store. However, Best Buy has since sold its stakes in both, and Joly said Tuesday that he had no plans to compete with Prime Video or Amazon Music whatsoever. “When I joined the company, this battle had been fought,” he said. “I don’t think we won it.”