A Google smartphone, the Nexus One, failed to catch on. Google next bought Motorola and then dumped it. BlackBerry, once the dominant smartphone maker, is struggling to survive. Microsoft's Windows Phone has less than 3 percent of the global market. A Facebook phone stumbled last year.
When it comes to smartphone profits, Apple and Samsung divide them up, leaving crumbs for every other manufacturer. At least in the United States, phones are a mature market, with 120 million sold last year.
Now Amazon is giving this brutal business a shot. On the one hand, analysts say, it has no choice. On the other, the rewards could be tremendous.
"Mobile is asserting not just its utility but its supremacy," said James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research. "If you're Amazon, you're worried you're going to be cut out of the next big interface. So you jump in and make yourself relevant, whether your customer is in the bathroom, the kitchen or the car. You go for broke."
For Amazon, the risk of doing nothing is that it could be completely marginalized by one of its competitors. Mr. McQuivey offered the example of coconut flour.
Search for the flour on Google, and Amazon comes up in two of the top responses, one of them an ad it paid for. In the future as designed by Google, however, the search engine will remember what you're looking for when you're out in the world and sell ads against that. So the next time you pass Trader Joe's, your Android phone sends a note: There is coconut flour just 50 feet away.
If that sort of transaction starts happening too often, the coconut flour is going to go stale in Amazon's warehouses.
In building a phone, Amazon has advantages other phone makers do not. It can sell to its 250 million customers without a middleman. It can bundle features with the Amazon Prime membership club, as it just did last week with a new streaming music service.
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Most of all, Amazon has the blessing of Wall Street to lose money as long as it is gaining market share — although recently the enthusiasm has dimmed a bit. The stock is about 20 percent off its peak.
An early demonstration of what Amazon wants to do with shopping can be seen in the Dash, a wand that the company quietly introduced this year. Customers who belong to Amazon's grocery service can use the Dash, which scans bar codes and takes voice commands, to restock their refrigerator and cabinets.
Imagine the Dash set free on the world and you have Amazon's long-term hopes for a phone. Sam Hall, an Amazon mobile executive, succinctly set forth the agenda in an interview a few years ago: "We're trying to remove the barrier between 'I want that' and 'I have it.' "
An Amazon spokesman declined to comment on Wednesday's event. There is always the possibility, of course, that all the rumors about a phone could be an elaborate head fake, and that the event will be something else entirely — perhaps a kiss-and-make-up ceremony between Amazon and its suppliers, with several of which it has drawn swords.
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No matter what, the event has more hoopla than any Amazon release in memory, indicating something big. First came a video showing a lot of people oohing and aahing over something out of camera range. This was taken by some as confirmation that the phone will have some sort of 3-D capacity. That might pull in gamers, another group Amazon is cultivating.