As the Fire Phone goes on sale this week, we ask the experts whether it’s primed to take over the smartphone world, or is Amazon set to be yet another company to get its fingers burned?
Nearly three years after Amazon kick-started the Android tablet market with the Kindle Fire, it has launched its first smartphone. The Fire Phone runs on Fire OS, the company’s forked version of Android based – presumably, but not confirmed – on KitKat. The phone is available from 25 July, in the US only at first, and exclusive to AT&T.
The smartphone market is notoriously difficult for newcomers to make any kind of impact, with even a company as large as Facebook suffering a high profile and embarrassing failure with its first handset last year. Amazon has equipped its device with a few attention-grabbing features, including an innovative ‘Dynamic Perspective’ function that combines a 3D-like effect with gesture controls, and the Firefly software that provides users with an even quicker way to shop online, but will it be enough to convert to sales?
The ‘Dynamic Perspective’ concept is quite intriguing. It isn’t 3D insofar as it isn’t focused on making things pop out of the screen, and isn’t reliant on any special display technology or require you to hold the device at certain angles. Instead it adds depth to the screen within certain apps. As you move your head, or tilt the phone in a particular direction, you can see ‘into’ the screen even to the point where you can see things that are not visible when you hold the display front on.
Amazon’s initial examples of how it could be used were in lockscreen eye candy, as well as more functional examples such as 3D overlays in maps that show buildings in an almost holographic style, or in games, where you might tilt the screen to peer around a corner. Amazon has made an SDK available to developers to enhance their products for this feature, though naturally getting developers to actually invest resources into a proprietary feature on a single handset is another challenge.
As Ian Fogg, Head of Mobile at IHS Technology noted, “Amazon will either need to accept fewer apps supporting the features and so reduced differentiation for the Fire, or it will have to pay for developers to code for its smartphone”. For its part Amazon seems to be leaning toward the latter option, with a range of promotions offering developers higher rates on ads and free credit towards promoting their paid apps.
Dynamic Perspective is made possible through the presence of infrared cameras mounted on each of the four corners of the front of the Fire Phone, which add depth to the images they record, just as the dual camera setup on the HTC One M8 adds depth to photographs. The technology is also used to support gesture controls, such as auto scrolling when you are reading an ebook, and assorted gestures that aid one-handed use.
If this latter part sounds familiar it is because it is covering similar territory to the gesture controls introduced with some hype by Samsung in the Galaxy S4, and then shunted into the background in the Galaxy S5. There’s no doubt that Amazon’s take on the idea is more advanced than Samsung’s was, but its value remains to be proven.
Scan (and buy) everything
On the software side the killer app, and arguably the main reason for the existence of the Fire Phone, is Firefly. Firefly connects the physical world to Amazon’s online store, and is so important to the company that the app has even been given its own dedicated button on the side of the handset. With Firefly you point the Fire’s camera at an object; it will identify it and then you can purchase it through the Amazon store. The principle is similar to that seen in Google Goggles, one of the oldest Android apps, but becomes so much more powerful with a direct link to the world’s biggest online retailer. Firefly can recognise over a hundred million items and ties into a user’s Amazon Prime account, which offers free next day delivery as part of its service. Moreover it will work with almost any type of product: scan an expensive electrical item in a store or a half empty bottle of juice in your fridge and they will arrive on your doorstep the next morning. Online shopping has never been so easy, and if Fire Phone users embrace it, Amazon may end up as almost the only shop they ever use.
A tough sell
In hardware terms the Fire Phone reflects the trend for a growing simplicity in smartphones, selling them more on the experience they provide than their specs. It is closest in the Android world to the approach taken by Motorola with the Moto X: unexciting on paper but great in the hand. That said, at $649 SIM-free the price is somewhat higher than expected, and in complete contrast to the Kindle Fire that has always been sold as a loss leader.
Francisco Jeronimo of analyst firm IDC believes the price makes the Fire Phone a tough sell. “Amazon is targeting the toughest segment of the market where the only players with a significant market share are Apple (with strong brand and design) and Samsung (with strong market budget),” he commented. It’s a concern shared by other analysts, including Fogg: “[The pricing] is a high risk launch price strategy which is unsustainable for a smartphone market entrant. Simply having a well-known brand on the box is not enough to sell smartphones as Nokia know well”.
The specs include a fast Snapdragon processor and 2GB of RAM, a 4.7-inch 720p display, and either 32 or 64GB of storage. The hardware highlights are dual stereo speakers mounted at either end of the handset and a 13-MP camera with fast f2.0 lens and optical image stabilisation that could rival the best on the smartphone market. The design is understated and pleasant if not ground-breaking. It measures a pretty average 9mm thick and is built from a combination of plastic, glass and rubber, around the frame for protection like a built-in bumper case. The 2400mAh battery is sealed, and its performance will come under scrutiny with the presence of those four front-facing cameras.
One interesting omission in the specs list is support for Bluetooth LE. This low-power version of Bluetooth is essential for use with wearable devices, suggesting the Fire Phone will not be partaking in the year’s biggest mobile trend.
But with Amazon devices the most contentious factor is the choice of operating system. Like the Kindle Fire tablets before it, the Fire Phone runs Fire OS. This is not a skinned version of Android, but a full-on fork. This means there are no Google apps or services and, importantly, no Google Play.
Instead the Fire Phone uses the Amazon Appstore. This has been growing quietly since its launch and now houses more than 240,000 apps, roughly the same number as is available for Microsoft’s Windows Phone, another platform that has been struggling to gain real market traction. It’s also about a quarter of what you’ll get with a proper Android device (although without a lot of the junk).
The Fire OS interface has some similarities with Android, such as its pull-down notifications shade, but feels like something that is Android-inspired rather than a new version of that OS. Fire OS doesn’t use traditional widgets, for example, instead having its own Active Widgets that developers will need to build into their own apps.
And this is the biggest question for the Fire Phone’s chances of adoption outside of its immediate target audience. Microsoft’s struggles have led many to question whether the smartphone market even has room for a third ecosystem. The Amazon Fire Phone is effectively a fourth, and it has just one phone available on one network in one country. Or maybe in this instance apps is only a very small part of the ecosystem. Amazon may have long-term mobile plans, but this first generation Fire Phone is very much aimed at what CEO Jeff Bezos called the “most engaged Prime members”. For now, this is the key.
“Amazon already has two very effective power-ups in its armoury: brand power and reams of content that users can soup up their mobiles with”, said Ernest Doku, mobiles expert at uSwitch.com. “Add those to a quality handset and the mobile market may well have a Trojan Horse on its hands. It’ll make its money from the books, films and music that users buy.” US technology analyst Jeff Kagan sees the phone as existing almost within a bubble: “It’s important to note that this Fire Phone does not have to win the competitive battle with the iPhone or Galaxy. That’s not the purpose. The purpose is simply to give customers more ways to buy stuff from amazon.com, like with the Kindle. Kindle customers will buy plenty of these over the first year. Then we’ll have to see if they can expand beyond that first slice.”
Ultimately the Amazon Fire Phone looks like following the exact same path as the Kindle Fire tablets. It’s a defiantly mainstream handset aimed at existing Amazon users who want the convenience of being able to buy stuff with one click, whether it’s their books or groceries. By restricting its availability the Fire Phone won’t be a massive seller, and is perhaps under less pressure to be so. It won’t be an Android geek’s phone, and doesn’t offer enough to steal away iPhone users. But neither will it be another Facebook phone.
This article first appeared in Android Magazine issue 40, which is on sale now at all good retailers and is available for digital download from Google Play Newsstand.