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What to make of Amazon’s island of misfit toys

(Emmanuel Dunand/ AFP/ Getty Images)
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Amazon is expanding in every direction -- and that has made some investors nervous. The company's stock price skyrocketed after a strong holiday quarter last week. Yet while its shares are trading 11 percent up at a price of $354.53 Monday morning, its 52-week high was still, well, just about 52 weeks ago. 

Now, Amazon has the reputation of being a company more focused on the long-term game than any short-term profit. Investors in the company have to know that, said Motley Fool analyst Jason Moser, who himself owns some Amazon stock.

"One of our biggest challenges here is educating investors to take a long-term horizon," he said. "If you don’t have the patience, this isn’t the stock for you." But investors have had even less patience than normal this year, thanks to the launch of several ambitious products that looked like so much spaghetti throwing rather than a coherent strategy.

Put another way, Amazon has been dabbling quite a bit, and that's raised some questions in investors' minds about strategy. Here's a quick review of what we're talking about -- the good, the bad and the in-between:

  • Amazon Fire Phone-  Probably the most notable failure of the year was Amazon's take on the smartphone. The Fire Phone was a $649 smartphone that was basically designed to shop and let you look at cool "3D" pictures.  To quote IDC analyst Ramon Llamas:  “It did not live up to expectations. Period.” Still, Amazon chief executive Jeffrey Bezos (who also owns The Washington Post) has said that there will be another iteration of the phone. Llamas said any second-generation of the phone would have to include a lot of improvements, such as an easy way to port information over from your old phone. The first generation of the phone was made for "fanboys and fangirls" of Amazon, he said -- and that clearly wasn't enough. "You have to go back to the well and draw another bucket of feedback," he said. Verdict: Fail, at least for the first generation.
  • Amazon Wallet-  Amazon launched and killed this beta program, a mobile payments service, in six months. Amazon Wallet, we hardly knew ye. Verdict: Fail.
  • Amazon Elements diapers- Another Amazon effort that got halted before it really started -- in this case, just six weeks after launch -- was the company's plan to sell private-label diapers. It was a key part of its Amazon Elements program, which is still open to Prime members who want to buy Amazon-branded baby wipes.  Citing a need to redesign the product, Amazon removed the diapers from its site and applied a $25 credit to anyone who subscribed to get the diapers. Verdict: Fail.
  • Kindle Voyage- Again, Amazon doesn't really break out sales -- certainly not with numbers. The Kindle Voyage is a play for premium customers in a shrinking market; a $200 e-reader doesn't exactly have the appeal of the iPhone. Still, it was a critical darling, and Amazon has said that its e-reader sales were up fourfold over last year's sales. Verdict: Still out.
  • Kindle tablets- Amazon shotgunned the tablet market with a handful new devices this fall aimed at just about every price point. The company reported that its tablet sales were up threefold from the previous year over Black Friday. Amazon doesn't release numbers when it talks about sales, so we can't make a direct comparison to something such as the iPad. But looking at Web traffic, the folks over at Chitika Insights estimated in September that the Kindle family of tablets accounted for 6.7 percent of U.S. tablet Web traffic. That puts the company in second place -- behind Apple, which accounted for 80 percent of traffic. Worldwide, Amazon isn't even in the top five. Verdict: Still out, but it's not looking great.
  • Amazon Echo- Amazon's talking personal assistant tube, the Echo, isn't officially out yet. You can sign up to be in the beta program as long as you don't mind waiting a bit. (For example, I finally got my invite to buy one two weeks ago, but it won't ship until July.) Early reviews say the platform shows promise, though its much-touted voice control system -- which Amazon is building from scratch -- needs some work, and that the Echo doesn't always respond as advertised. But when it works, reviewers say, it really works. In other words, we'll have to put a pin in this one to figure out if it's a win or a fail quite yet. Verdict: Still out.
  • Original programming- A lot of people were a bit baffled by Amazon's decision to jump into the content space, but in this case the company does have a Golden Globe or two  to show for it. And a deal to produce a Woody Allen project which, no matter what you may think of Woody Allen, is telling. The next season of pilots from Amazon don't look quite as promising, however, so we'll have to see if lightning strikes again. Verdict: Success, for now.

Added up, that sure looks like more losses and draws than wins -- truly a list of misfit toys. But Moser said that's probably fine as long as Amazon can learn lessons from its lesser projects. (Just as we all did from the "real" island of misfit toys.) Failed projects at Amazon have led to other successful products, he noted, citing the example of the short-lived Amazon Auctions, which turned into the third-party seller business, Marketplace.

Even fast failures don't cause Moser concern.  That just shows him that  Amazon has "no issue pulling the plug on something if it doesn’t see some sort of benefit down the road." That's more than a lot of other companies can say, he added, naming overdue turnaround efforts at companies such as BlackBerry and RadioShack. "You  can see when companies are trying to pursue more or less untenable strategies -- it can turn into a long drawn-out train wreck."

He also noted that even the failed experiments were all in the pursuit of building up the one thing Amazon investors do like -- the company's Prime subscription package. If Amazon can continue expanding on that program, he said, they can rely on a regular, Costco-like flow of cash that drives people to buy more and more on its site. And Prime memberships, the company said Thursday, are going gangbusters -- up 53 percent over the past year.

Investors, he said, shouldn't be focused on profit and focus, because they'll never get it from Amazon. As BGC analyst Colin Gillis said in a Friday note: "We do not expect that company management is making a radical departure from its investment philosophy...looking forward to the March quarter, we expect the company reverts back to posting a net income loss."

That certainly echoes what Bezos himself has said about Amazon's never-ending spending drive. "One of my jobs is to encourage people to be bold," Bezos told Business Insider last month. "It’s incredibly hard.  Experiments are, by their very nature, prone to failure. A few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work."

In other words: if you don't like the experiments, that's just tough for you.