Well, at long last we have the Amazon phone. The Fire Phone is the Kindle Fire, shrunk to the increasingly-standard 4.7” screen size. It does have a couple of party pieces of note:
* Firefly, a universal “recognize everything and send you right to Amazon to buy it” function that’s already on the Amazon iOS app under the name of Flow. Although the Firefly implementation looks more comprehensive and is apparently extendible via an API.
* Dynamic Perspective, an approach to the UI that uses four (!) front-facing cameras with infrared lighting (!!) to do constant real-time face recognition and modify the screen display accordingly in a sort of 3-D effect (!!!). Setting aside the “on camera at all times” aspect that will no doubt make the Edward Snowden worshippers crap their trousers, my immediate first thought was “Amazon: F Yo Battery Life, Lawya”.
* Mayday, the instant-tech-support app made famous during March Madness by Craig Sager’s exotic fashion choices.
Here’s the thing: the appeal of the Kindle Fire was that it was the first genuinely non-shit-on-toast Android tablet. It got there by eschewing most of what made Android Android – carving off the UI and the Google features in place of an Amazon UI optimized for watching and reading your Amazon-purchased media, with apps bought from a curated and well-managed store. In other words, by making a tablet that was everything the iPad was accused of being, and bringing it in at a ridiculously reasonable price.
But the phone is $199 with a two-year AT&T contract. And AT&T is the only launch carrier. This sounds an awful lot like what happened with the Moto X, where a phone with less than cutting-edge specs was offered at premium price on the grounds that its Unique Selling Proposition was worth the difference. It works with Apple, because they can offer the largest app ecosystem in mobile and the ease of use that goes along with iOS. It works with Samsung, because they max out the spec sheet and flood the zone with advertising. It didn’t work with the Moto X, because Google simply didn’t put the kind of promotion behind it that it needed…and because its USP remained tied to AT&T for too long.
And that’s the thing about the Fire Phone…you have to really want to use the Amazon ecosystem. I mean, really want to use it. Because you can buy stuff from Amazon on regular Android or iOS phones. In fact, right now, your iOS device can be used for everything on the Fire except Dynamic Perspective – shopping, Instant Video, even an approximation of Firefly via the Flow option. And some of the things you give up – like Bluetooth LE or even multitasking, in the first iteration – are going to be a lot to ask, especially in a world where wearables are the next great frontier. Try telling Ed Earl Brown – or his wife, as likely as not – that they can’t use the Fitbit with their Fire Phone.
Then again, this is not a power-user phone. This is a phone that you can give your mother, and she can use it to make calls, take pictures, probably do text and email, watch movies, listen to music, read 50 Shades Of Unintentional Comedy on the down-low, and if she has problems or has questions, press a button and there’s somebody to help instead of speed-dialing you to try to talk her through something. Maybe there’s a market there, although the jury is out until more people interact with this thing in the real world. That’s actually another trick: Google’s attempt to sell the Nexus One was a complete bust. This phone is going to have to be in front of people, and just having it at the AT&T store isn’t going to cut it. It needs to be in Target, in Best Buy, in Wal-Mart, and people need to be able to see how things like Firefly and Mayday and Dynamic Perspective work in the real world. That will do more to sell it than just looking at video online and taking their word for it.
But right now, there’s nothing that seizes me like the Moto X did and makes me think “I must try this phone.” Which means it’s definitely not targeted for my market. If it is, then Amazon may have just laid an egg. It remains to be seen how it works out for everyone else.