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Amazon's Smartphone Ambitions Go Beyond Making Shopping Easier

Amazon is aiming to change up the smartphone market itself, with a new type of hands-free interface and other features.

No, it’s not the equivalent of January, 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s iPhone, the first modern smartphone, with revolutionary features like multi-touch navigation and various sensors, which changed the mobile phone industry fundamentally.

And, yes, like all of Amazon’s hardware devices since the first Kindle e-reader, the new Amazon Fire smartphone that was introduced on Wednesday is very much about making it easier and more tempting to buy stuff from Amazon.

But it would be a mistake to assume that there’s nothing more going on here than creating another mobile shopping cart for the giant e-retailer. This time — unlike with its much more conventional Fire line of tablets — Amazon is aiming to change up the smartphone market itself, with a new type of hands-free interface and other features.

I haven’t had a chance to live with the new Fire phone, which ships July 25, and I can’t yet say how well it works or how well it stacks up against leading standard Android phones, or the iPhone. A full review will be forthcoming closer to its shipping date, when I’ve been able to put the phone through its paces. It’s certainly possible that the new features are just gimmicks.

But, based on Amazon’s presentation, the Fire phone is different enough that it could attract some consumers from the plethora of phones running Google’s standard Android platform, and from the iPhone — even if they aren’t looking to buy more e-books from Amazon. Famously patient and tenacious, Amazon seems to be serious about muscling its way into what is now a duopoly at the top of the smartphone market.

The key to this hope rests with moving beyond the touching and swiping that has become the norm on smartphones since 2007, and allowing users to do a bunch of common tasks, one-handed, by merely tilting the phone. This hands-free navigation is part of what Amazon calls Dynamic Perspective, and it works via a new set of sensors — four specialized cameras on the phone’s face.

The flashiest aspects of Dynamic Perspective involve things like giving images, graphics and games a parallax effect, so static objects seem to move. This is kind of like the way Apple’s icons float over the wallpaper, but it goes much deeper into the user interface and is used more broadly.

But, to me, the most interesting part of the new system is the way it promises to enable navigation and gestures by just tilting the phone. Examples include scrolling through Web pages, documents and books, exposing hidden menus and panels on the sides of the phone’s screen, or causing information like Yelp ratings to appear on maps.

And, yes, the new cameras will also allow you to better study images when shopping on Amazon.

The second big new feature has a huge commerce component, but does other things, as well. It’s called Firefly, and it can be activated by a button, even if the phone is asleep. It uses the camera and a lot of intelligence to identify objects, music and video, and coughs up a link to where you can buy them on Amazon.

But even this obvious “buy-from-us” feature has additional potential. It can recognize and call printed phone numbers, and can recognize printed email addresses and Web links. There are apps on other phones that do some of this, but Firefly, as advertised, does it quickly at the push of a button, and is deeply integrated into the phone’s operating system (which is based on, but increasingly different from, standard Android).

So Amazon seems serious about changing the way smartphones work. And it seems much more ambitious about the phone than it did about the tablet, where it did a respectable, but not earthshaking, job.

But there are some very big boulders Amazon has chosen to lug up the mountain of the smartphone market. First, the Fire phone will only be available on one U.S. carrier, AT&T, and my strong sense is that this exclusivity won’t be a short-lived thing, lasting just a few months. That means that many people will have to switch carriers to get this phone, something people yearning for an iPhone or Galaxy don’t have to do.

Yes, it worked for awhile for Apple way back in 2007, but back then, nothing could touch the iPhone, and the arrangement became a problem even with that.

Second, while Amazon’s app store has grown to 240,000 apps, that’s still about 25 percent of what an iPhone or standard Android user can choose from. The company says it will fill some holes by adding popular apps like Instagram, Snapchat and Uber, and it also says it has new developer software that makes it a snap to convert standard Android apps to work with the phone’s new features. But that depends on how eagerly developers embrace the Fire phone — a big question.

Finally, there’s price. Despite rumors that the Fire phone would sell for much less than Apple’s and Samsung’s top models, it sells for about the same amounts: $200 subsidized, with a two-year contract, and $650, unsubsidized, with no contract.

There is a major caveat on pricing. The base model comes with twice the memory of the base iPhone, and for an unspecified but limited, time, Amazon is throwing in a free year of its $99-a-year Prime service. But consumers are likely to focus more on the big-dollar figures.

So, yes, the Fire phone is about buying other stuff from Amazon, for sure. But it’s also about becoming the next big smartphone platform.

This article originally appeared on

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