Amazon on Wednesday announced the long-awaited and painfully late to market Fire Phone. Amazon's first smart phone combines a few innovative features like Dynamic Perspective head-tracking with deep (perhaps too deep) tie-ins to Amazon's digital ecosystems and retail store operations.
This one is going to be a struggle, so bear with me.
As a technology enthusiast, events like "Amazon's first smart phone" are of course inherently interesting. And I understand this market well enough to know that Amazon needed to really differentiate the devices in order to make even a dent, let alone really compete with the market leaders. And I know, further, that the deeply innovative Windows Phone platform, despite many advantages over Android and iOS, has barely made a dent.
So I look at what Amazon did announce with that perspective. And while there are certainly interesting bits, ... eh. I just don't see anything truly exciting there. I don't feel that Amazon has established a fourth mobile platform, at least not one that matters. And I don't think that Fire Phone is differentiated enough—in a positive way that benefits actual users—to matter at all.
My view is admittedly colored. As I wrote just yesterday in Kobo Books for Windows Phone 8.x (and Windows 8.x), and explained more thoroughly in The Sad State of Amazon Apps on Windows late last year, Amazon has squandered what I used to view as its most compelling advantage in the digital world: It no longer treats the physical end-points (i.e. devices) to its digital media ecosystem equally. That is, there is no such thing as a "Kindle experience" or whatever. Amazon doesn't treat its apps on different platforms equally. And on Windows/Windows Phone in particular, the firm just doesn't give a shit: The apps that do exist (Kindle, Audible) are not as feature-complete as the same apps on other platforms and are rarely if ever updated. Many more apps (Instant Video, Amazon Music, etc.) never even make it to Windows/Windows Phone.
(By "Windows" I mean Modern Windows, not Windows desktop. It's 2014.)
A few years ago, Jeff Bezos was talking about how Amazon didn't make money selling devices, it made money when people used devices. And the theory was that Amazon, alone of the big digital platform makers, could still win when you buy some other company's device. Because of the gap in quality or availability of Amazon's apps and services across rival platforms, however, that theory has been effectively denounced. Amazon, as it turns out, says one thing and means another. And yes, it does want you to buy its devices, not rival devices.
And that would be fine, if Amazon's devices had any compelling value. They used to. A long time user and fan of the Kindle platform, for example, I positively reviewed every single device the firm sold ... until last year's Kindle Fire HDX. But that time, Amazon's insular, Amazon.com-focused user interfaces had gotten to me. It's lack of openness, the entire point of Android, usurped in order to keep users locked into Amazon's ecosystems instead. By the time the HDX shipped, Amazon's devices weren't just not a good value compared to more expensive Apple devices, they weren't even good values compared to similarly priced tablets like the Google Nexus 7, which is vastly superior. (And can run Amazon's apps if that's what you want.) Amazon devices went from being a good value to be just a tunnel into their store.
And that's what the Fire Phone is. It's not a phone. It's a portable doorway into Amazon.com. And I'm sorry, but that is not OK.
It's not OK because continually "buying stuff," or at the least being confronted by a sales pitch, as you are when you view items in the device's Fire OS and it shows you related items in the store, is not any human being's primary activity. Technology can be used for good or evil, and while saving a buck is obvious OK in isolation, being constantly confronted with offers, money-saving or not, is not. Yes, you could use a Fire Phone to record some of life's most wonderful moments on what appears to be a decent camera. Or you could just use some other device that isn't constantly trying to sell you something while you're doing so.
Looking at the device (finally, I know, I know), we see a mix of mid-level and high-end hardware and a mix of innovative and me-too features. Worse, we see nothing special at all around pricing, which quite frankly is the biggest disappointment. Here are the salient points.
Hardware specs. The Fire Phone provides a mid-level, 2.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor with an Adreno 330 graphics processor, 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB or 64 GB of storage, depending on the model. That storage is not upgradeable with microSD.
Screen. The Fire Phone's display is also mid-level, offering a resolution of 720 x 1280 (720p) in its 4.7-inch screen. The display is LCD, and not a superior IPS/OLED-type design.
Cameras. The back-facing camera looks good on paper, offering 13 megapixels of resolution, multi-frame HDR, auto focus, optical image stabilization, f/2.0 5-element wide aperture lens, and an LED flash. The front-facing camera is 2.1 megapixels. Amazon compared the rear camera favorably to the Samsung Galaxy S5 and iPhone 5S, both of which are excellent, but it ignored the Lumia 1020, 1520 and Icon/930, each of which offers a superior camera. The good news? Every photo you take is backed up to Amazon's Cloud Drive for free. Where they will never be heard from again, as no one uses Cloud Drive. But at least they're backed up.
Fire OS 3.5. Amazon provides an AOSP-based OS called Fire OS which has its pros and cons. On the con side is its "content-forward" user experience, which is all about pushing you to buy more stuff while you navigate your own content.
Amazon AppStore for Android. The device's store, with about 200,000 apps, is a far cry from the ~1 million offered by Google Play, which you cannot use on this device. Even Windows Phone has more apps. And if you need Microsoft apps, you're out of luck: They're on real Android, but only a handful of lesser apps are available on Amazon's devices. The good news? Fire Phone comes with 1,000 Amazon Coins (a $10 value) for apps, games, and in-app purchases.
Dynamic Perspective. This feature looks legitimately cool and is actually innovative. It lets you tilt the phone or move your head to show 3D-like perspective changes on the phone's screen. It's not clear how pervasive these experiences are—I could see some people getting seasick from the effect—but Amazon demonstrated it in the lock screen, in immersive apps and games, and throughout the OS UIs.
Firefly. This controversial features turns your phone into a front-end for Amazon's online store. When you're out in the world—say at a Best Buy or some other foolishly old-school retailer that now only acts as a showroom for Amazon—you can use the phone to identify a real-world product and then purchase it through Amazon. How important is this feature to Fire Phone? There' a dedicated hardware button. This is the firm that invented One Click, after all.
Mayday. Aimed at the unwashed masses, this feature gets you in touch with a real human being so you can troubleshoot anything that's wrong with your phone. And yes, there's a dedicated hardware button for Mayday on the phone too. Because people who use Amazon hardware are apparently that much in need of help.
Prime. I assume you're familiar with Amazon's Prime service, a $99-per-year subscription that provides "free" two-day shipping on many items in the Amazon.com physical products store, plus a few digital perks like access to Instant Prime Videos (a Netflix rip-off) and Prime Music (a Pandora/Spotify/iTunes Radio knock-off). If you buy a Fire Phone, you get one year of Prime for free. (Existing subscribers get a one-year extension for free.)
Amazon ecosystems. Obviously, the Fire Phone provides integrated access to Amazon's digital media ecosystems, including Kindle e-books, Amazon Music, Instant Video, and Audible audiobooks. And it supports the full feature set of each, unlike these services on many devices. That means X-Ray in Instant Video, Whispersync between Kindle and Audible, second screen support, and Kindle periodical support. You only get the full experience on Amazon devices now.
In the box. The device comes with a USB 2.0-based wall charger (no longer provided with Amazon's tablets and e-book readers) and a pair of tangle-free headphones.
Accessories. There wasn't much on accessories, but Amazon will eventually sell at least colored cases. You cannot preorder them yet, however.
Branding. It's worth noting that this is the first Amazon mobile device to not carry the Kindle moniker. Instead, it uses the Fire branding that first appeared on the Kindle Fire tablets.
Pricing. This is where it all falls apart. Fire Phone costs $199.00 for a 32 GB version with a two-year contract from AT&T, or $299.00 for the 64 GB version. If you want it unsubsidized—but still locked to AT&T—it costs a whopping $650/750.
Wireless carrier. Just in case it's not obvious, you can only get the Fire Phone on AT&T Wireless. In the United States only.
Availability. Fire Phone can be preordered now. The device will be released in about a month, on July 25, 2014.
I'm not sure if I'll be reviewing this device. I've asked Amazon.com for a review loaner, but the firm has ignored my requests in the past, and given my recent disenchantment with their direction, this one is an open question all around. We'll see what happens.