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Amazon's Hard Sell: Gaining Developers for Its Coming Smartphones

Launching a new smartphone is easier said than done in a crowded market.

Asa Mathat

As Amazon prepares for the launch of its first smartphones, the company faces a daunting task: Ensuring that the devices have an app ecosystem compelling enough to win over consumers.

Sources familiar with Amazon’s plans have confirmed to Re/code that the company does indeed intend to debut a smartphone in the second half of this year, as the Wall Street Journal first reported.

These same sources said the company is also developing a second, cheaper smartphone for emerging markets, which it plans to debut at a later date. Recently, Amazon has begun reaching out to developers and potential media partners about these devices.

Amazon is working hard to flesh out a portfolio of key apps that will likely be crucial to its new smartphone’s success. That’s no easy task in a smartphone market dominated by two giant device-makers, Apple and Samsung, which together account for 60 percent of the smartphones currently in use in the U.S., according to research by the Yankee Group.

As with its Kindle Fire tablet, Amazon is building its phone with a modified version of Google’s Android OS. Sources said the company has been developing a mechanism to automatically translate existing Android apps to Amazon apps. But it hasn’t yet finished it. In the meantime, Amazon has been wooing app developers with offers of money, Amazon Web Services, development assistance, and the promise of potentially being preloaded onto the phone.

Another issue Amazon faces as it works to bring its first smartphone to market: Google, which has recently become stricter in its approach to Android and its app ecosystem. The company no longer gives forked Android sellers access to crucial phone features such as its maps, in-app purchases and notifications.

One person from a company that has decided for now not to take Amazon up on its offer to develop a smartphone app for the device’s launch expressed skepticism about building Amazon-specific wrappers and workarounds.

“I don’t know how they’ll differentiate with Samsung,” the source said. “There’s nothing really that different.”

Through its work on the Kindle Fire, Amazon has already built ways for app developers to include Nokia maps and in-app purchases through its own system. Today, app developers have to modify their Android apps for use on Amazon devices.

The developer source said Amazon was trying to write a “midlevel layer” to convert Android API calls to Amazon API calls, but again, it’s not ready yet.

Another potential differentiator is that Amazon has also developed a sort of 3-D display for the phone, as the Wall Street Journal reported.

Sources tell Re/code that one advantage of this display will supposedly be that the phone can be moved from right to left to navigate, so a user can interact with the interface with only one hand. Both HTC and Samsung have experimented with 3-D and eye-tracking displays — on their HTC EVO 3D and Samsung Galaxy S4, respectively — but neither to great effect.

Amazon’s entry into the smartphone market has been rumored for more than a year, ever since the Seattle retail giant hired former Microsoft executive Charlie Kindel, who headed up development of the Windows Phone app platform.

At the time, Kindel told Geekwire that Amazon presented the opportunity to “build something new that has ginormous potential.”

Amazon has not yet responded to a request for comment.

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