With the rise of the smart phones, this idea of computers as general-purpose machines fully under our control has quickly fallen by the wayside. Many mobile devices are becoming more akin to household appliances, deliberately crafted to perform a handful of functions while arbitrarily discouraging or disallowing others.
Today’s mobile operating systems, such as Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS and Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Android, orbit around centralized app stores, walled gardens that push participation in the company’s larger software ecosystem. Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) Fire phone is perhaps the most ambitious realization of this captive consumer dynamic. The company’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, has been fairly candid about the primary purpose of Amazon’s hardware: to get the device’s owner to buy more stuff.
It’s not the first time Amazon has pushed the boundaries of gadget ownership. In 2012 it released a new line of Kindle tablets running a special operating system based on Google’s Android. As part of its normal functioning, the device tracks and records user activity (including how long users spend reading each page of an e-book) and shows advertisements for Amazon products on the basis of the data it harvests. After complaints, the company offered the ability to turn off the ads for $15.
Details of the New Fire Phone
The new Fire phone runs the same operating system as the Kindles do, and it goes a step further by boosting Amazon’s shopping service in more novel (and unsettling) ways. It’s ironic that a year after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden sparked international anxieties about government spying, Bezos is selling a phone that features not one or two but six cameras. Four of those cameras are forward facing and are capable of advanced head tracking and face detection, something Bezos said took the company four years to develop. They support an innocuous-sounding app called Firefly, which can use the phone’s cameras and microphone to watch, scan and listen to everything around the user. If you’re listening to music or watching a movie, the app can identify and log your selections. Firefly can even use the phone’s camera mode to identify and save all the objects you come across in the physical environment, such as the books in your house, the landmarks you visit while sightseeing and the paintings you see at the museum.
The phone itself is rather unremarkable for the most part. It's all black with Gorilla Glass 3 on the front and rear, plastic sides and some rubber features. The display is 4.7 inches large and 720p, which according to Bezos, is the sweet-spot size for one handed use. The phone is 8.9 mm thick, 5.64 ounces, and features five front-facing cameras for the new "dynamic perspective" feature. According to Bezos, Amazon put a lot of effort into the "injection-molded" connectors that will have no wobble when the charger is plugged in. Furthermore, the stereo speakers and headphones are presented as better than your average phone.
Reasons that this Phone May Be a Flop
Fire Phone is overpriced with lower specs than the iPhone 5s and Galaxy S5. Some features are gimmicky and some are useful but nothing compelling over other high-end phones.
The Fire Phone uses the Snapdragon 800, which is surpassed by other high-end phones already with similar price. Apple's A7 processor is still arguably the fastest mobile processor right now depending on how you benchmark. Everything else is just subpar for a phone that just released. Much better is expected from a $650 phone.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about FireOS is that there's no Google Play Store. There's not much customization for users compared to Android. Lacking Google Play is perhaps the biggest turn off for many potential buyers. Amazon's apps' collection is just not as large.
If Amazon really wanted people to jump on the Prime bandwagon, it should have been more creative with its pricing model. Offering it to Prime Members off-contract for $200 would have been the first smart move. Otherwise there is simply no incentive, unless you're just a straight up Amazon kool-aid drinker.
The other touted feature in Amazon's new device is called "Firefly." It sounds cool, but anything would sound cooler than calling it "price scanner" because that's exactly what Amazon has built. A $650 price scanner. Amazon was coy to mention first in its marketing that Firefly can capture phone numbers, email addresses, and other text and let you take action with it. That's actually useful, and something that every smartphone should have. If we did, QR codes would actually be universally embraced.
I'm concerned that one of the key selling points of the Amazon phone is a gimmicky 3D effect, dubbed Dynamic Perspective. It's something that feels like it would be enjoyable for about a minute. Then you'd realize there isn't anything very practical about it, at least not yet.
Despite being one of the world’s savviest companies in terms of customer service, online interaction and delivery logistics, Amazon stumbled into this same trap with Dynamic Display and Firefly. Both features show tremendous potential, but are too elaborate for anything but occasional use; the swarm of glowing lights that Firefly uses to show it’s capturing a product or string of text, for example, will get old fast once you start using it several times a day. Amazon’s choice of terminology further confirms its pro-delight bias: the side window that pops up next to a running app to give you additional information (like song lyrics) is called the “delighter”.
To Put the Pieces Together
Despite heavy marketing and a compelling list of features, the overpriced and restrictive Fire Phone's sales slipped to 24 in Amazon's electronics category after just a few days. This is from its highest rank of 4th, and was 16th on June 23rd.
The market will determine whether Amazon’s Fire phone succeeds in a crowded field. As computing devices fall more in step with the routines of our lives, we should scrutinize the motives and biases coded into the software that runs on them otherwise, our tools risk becoming not really ours at all.