Thoughts on Amazon’s Fire Phone

Amazon Fire Phone LogoAmazon announced the latest addition to their product line yesterday, a smartphone named the Fire. It didn’t come as much of a surprise. I’ve been expecting them to release a phone for sometime now. In fact, I thought they were going to release one during 2013 (see my prediction here). Now that the Fire is official, here are my thoughts after seeing the announcement and reading reactions from across the web.

Overview of the Fire

The Fire looks a lot like any other smartphone. According to Jeff Bezos, it was designed with one-handed operation in mind. It’s reasonably sized at 4.7″, which compares favorably to the 4″ screen of the iPhone 5s but not as large as the 5.1″ screen of the Samsung Galaxy S5. The processor and memory is in-line with upper mid-range smartphones on the market today, and the screen has a resolution of 720p, which is fine for viewing photos and watching video. The biggest difference in the hardware design is the presence of four front-facing cameras. These cameras track the users eye and facial movement and play a key role in Dynamic Perspective, one of the Fire’s many innovative software features.

The Fire Phone App Grid

In fact, software is where the Fire differentiates itself from other phones on the market. In addition to Dynamic Perspective, the Fire also has a service called Firefly for identifying phone numbers, website, email addresses, music, movies and more. It comes with Amazon’s Mayday service for offering on demand help. It also comes with a full year of Amazon Prime, which I would contend is one of the best values money can buy. Given the ho-hum design of the phone, it’s pretty clear that Amazon is trying to differentiate itself through the software and service offerings available on the Fire.

The good

  • Fire Phone Hand Firefly IconIntegration with Amazon Prime service
    As I mentioned above, Amazon Prime is one of the best values out there. At $99 for the year, you get unlimited access to streaming video, streaming music, the Kindle lending library, and free two-day shipping for Amazon purchases. The Fire integrates with all of these services and includes a one year subscription to Amazon Prime. You don’t need the Fire to take advantage of Amazon Prime, but the tight integration with the phone will let you get even more for your money.
  • Firefly
    Firefly is a cross between Google Goggles, Shazam, and a barcode reader. The application can identify phone numbers, web and email addresses, music, movies, and tons of household products. Sure, it’s another way to help funnel you into the Amazon purchasing machine, but what’s wrong with that? If you’re already using Amazon to purchase a lot of products, Firefly will help streamline the process.
  • Mayday
    One of the biggest issues with most phones is figuring out how to use them. By coupling the Fire with its Mayday customer help line, Amazon is hoping to help customers learn the Fire’s features faster.

The not so good

  •  AT&T exclusivity
    I don’t understand this decision. I’m sure AT&T paid a lot of money for this right, but it severely limits the available market. Didn’t Amazon learn anything from Apple and its AT&T exclusivity? Once the iPhone became available on additional carriers, market share for the iPhone really took off. If this a long-term exclusivity, Amazon may come to regret this decision.
  • Fire OS
    I get it that Amazon has invested a lot of money in their own version of Android, but it just isn’t as polished as the true Android experience. I’ve had a Kindle Fire for the last 18 months, and while the OS is capable, it’s not as full featured or as smooth as my Nexus 7 Android tablet. For starters, the lack of Google services such as Maps, the Play Store and Play Music would be a serious issue for me. It’s not a big deal on the tablet, but it would be very noticeable and inconvenient on a phone.

Dynamic Perspective: Game-changer or Gimmick?

Amazon is making a big deal out of Dynamic Perspective – the ability of the phone to respond to how you hold, view, and move it. At this point, I view this feature as more gimmick than game-changer. Until developers are able to work with feature and create some unique user experiences and interactions, I don’t see what the big deal is. Sure, it’s kind of cool, but it’s not a necessity. My guess is that it’s a neat trick that people will play with for a bit when they get the phone, and then they’ll rarely use it after that.

What it will take to succeed

The smartphone market is dominated by the iPhone and Android devices, so Amazon has a lot of work ahead of it. In my view, here’s what they will need to do to succeed:

  1. Drop exclusivity, quickly
    Long-term exclusivity is not a winning formula for a phone. It might get you some short-term cash, but it won’t buy you market share long-term. The Fire Phone needs to be available across as many carriers as possible, as quickly as possible.
  2. Developer support
    Whether manufacturers like it or not, the success of their platform is dependent on support from developers. If developers aren’t building apps for your platform, you’re toast – just ask Microsoft and BlackBerry. Amazon will need to continue to market hard to developers and make it as easy as possible for them to develop for Fire OS. In particular, they need to make sure that  popular mobile apps such as Evernote and Dropbox are available on the Fire Phone.
  3. Google services
    While Amazon might not want to admit it, they would be smart to work out a deal to include Google services in the Fire OS. It could help bring across a lot of Android users who otherwise would be hesitant to switch, such as me.

Would I buy a Fire Phone?

I’ll admit that I’m a fan of Amazon. I use Amazon for a lot of services, am an Amazon Prime member, and own a Kindle Fire. The Fire Phone appears tailor made for me, but I don’t plan to buy it. Since I’m not an AT&T customer and don’t plan to switch anytime soon, that eliminates me as a possible customer. The lack of Google services and app selection are also deal killers.

At this point, I wouldn’t recommend the phone unless you’re heavily invested in the Amazon ecosystem and Amazon App Store. Even then, I would suggest that you hold out and wait for the second version of the phone. I’m certain Amazon will make a lot of improvements in the Fire Phone hardware and software once it gets used by the general public. Unless you like being out on the bleeding edge of technology, waiting is a wise move.

Overall, I’m not expecting the initial Fire Phone to be a success. It might even fail spectacularly. However, I don’t advise betting against Amazon. Bezos and crew do not enter a market without a long-term vision, and I expect they are in the market for the long haul. I expect that Amazon will learn from its experience, and they will use that knowledge to come out with a stronger version 2 offering next year. I don’t see Amazon challenging iOS or Android for market supremacy anytime soon, nor will they challenge Apple or Samsung for smartphone market share. What I expect is for Amazon to grind away and carve out a significant market share over time with a phone and services that appeals to its most loyal base of customers. It’s a plan that they’ve managed well with their Kindle line of tablets, and one that I suspect will work well for them in smartphones as well.

For further reading about the announcement, here are a sampling of articles from my favorite technology sources: