The rumors about an Amazon smartphone have been doing the rounds for many years, and now it has finally arrived. What could the world’s biggest online retailer bring to the already crowded smartphone party? How does Amazon expect to tempt people away from the mighty offerings of Google and Apple? How can it produce better hardware than experienced consumer electronics giants like Samsung, LG, and Sony?
The short answers are nothing much, it won’t, and it can’t.
We can point to a lot of reasons that the Amazon Fire is going to fail, and we will, but the biggest surprise is the price tag. It costs $199 on a two year contract (AT&T only) or a whopping $650 off-contract. That puts it in the same bracket as the Samsung Galaxy S5, the LG G3, and the iPhone 5S. When we compare specs with the S5 and G3, you find that the Fire lags behind. It has a smaller screen with a lower pixel density, it has an older, slower processor, and there’s no microSD card slot. It’s also heavier and lacks an eye-catching design. The camera should perform better in low light thanks to a wider aperture, but it ties with the G3 at 13MP and lags behind the 4K-shooting 16MP camera in the S5.
Having witnessed Amazon’s strategy with the Kindle Fire tablet line you could be forgiven for expecting a low cost device. Wasn’t the idea to get people to buy the hardware so they’d be locked into the ecosystem and spend, spend, spend on Amazon goodies? This device at the Nexus 5 price point of $350 would have caused serious shockwaves, but there’s nothing in the hardware to justify the premium price. Surely Amazon has something else up its sleeve?
Software features and Amazon services
There are some good points about the Fire phone, based on a consumer focus that may be lacking elsewhere, but only time will tell if they are enough to carve out a niche ownership.
We’ve got the MayDay feature for instant tech support. Before you dismiss it, consider that it’s not aimed at you, it’s aimed at that friend or relative who phones you up to ask why their computer or smartphone isn’t working properly, and instantly betrays their complete lack of ability to just “Google” the problem and find a solution.
Amazon is also offering free unlimited photo storage and it does have a decent camera with a dedicated camera button for quick launch. Then there’s the tie in with Miracast and Fire TV making it simple to stream content to the big screen.
Bringing out the big guns we have Firefly. A physical button on your phone that is the pinnacle of a capitalist consumer society – point it at anything and you can buy it on Amazon in seconds. It can even identify songs, movies, and TV shows. Amazon is betting that it doesn’t matter that the competition already offers similar deals, or that these features have been around in app form for years already. It’s also hoping you won’t consider the potential value of all this big data in the form of recordings (images, audio, and location) you’re effectively uploading to Amazon’s servers.
The biggest carrot of all is the free one year membership of Amazon Prime, usually $100 per year. It gives access to a sizeable library of movies, TV shows, music, and e-books, not to mention two-day shipping on any Amazon purchases. Although it does say “for a limited time” so there’s no telling how long that promotion will last.
All of that before we come to “Dynamic Perspective”. Four infrared cameras track your face and give a 3D-like experience (that isn’t actually 3D). It sounds a lot like Apple’s parallax effect on steroids and it was hardly a popular feature. Motion sickness complaints will flood in and Ars Technica already reported that the feature goes wonky when two faces are close enough to the phone to confuse it. Maybe Amazon should have left it out and cut the price of the phone accordingly.
The Fire platform just isn’t as good
Amazon’s insistence on forking Android and cutting out Google services means that you are limited to a much smaller subset of apps and games. Less than 25% of what is the Play Store and there are some big names on the omission list. For the Kindle Fire tablet range you could get away without great navigation capabilities, but the lack of Google Maps or a really good alternative on a phone is going to be a deal-breaker for many.
You don’t get the same customization options with Fire either. You could root it and sort some of these deficiencies out, but why would you? The vast, vast majority of people who buy this phone will not consider rooting and the attraction of this hardware for the people who would root is not clear (if it had been cheap then maybe).
It’s for Amazon fans
If we were to judge the Fire phone as a flagship release from a manufacturer looking to break into the top tier then we can safely say it’s going to be an epic fail, but Bezos dropped some clues that this isn’t really the aim when he asked, “Can we build a better phone for our most engaged customers?”
If you’re crazy about Amazon then maybe that’s enough to sway you into buying. It didn’t work for Facebook, but it’s a very different company. There is a real possibility that Amazon will carve out a little niche and look to build on it, but it could well be confined to the US. There was no word on a wider international release for the Fire phone and Amazon is a great deal less popular in Europe and further afield.
Even less convincing was AT&T’s chief exec, Ralph de la Vega, coming on stage to say “I am going to buy a whole lot more things with this technology than I ever have before.” Seriously?
Firefly is one of those features that solves a problem for Amazon – how can we get people to buy more stuff? It doesn’t solve a problem for us. It’s not hard to get Amazon services on any Android device or the iPhone for that matter, and we won’t be surprised if Firefly ends up as a cross-platform app. So what is the USP for the Fire phone? What does it do better than the rest? Why would you recommend it over any of the current Android flagships? We genuinely can’t see a reason.