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Bezos: Amazon Fire Phone Was a Long Time Coming

"Our job is to build the greatest device we know how to build and then customers will choose. The other job we have is to be patient."

Ina Fried

Going to dump your iPhone for this?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has made a long-term bet that you will. The retailer’s new Fire phone is the culmination of four years of development that tie together original ideas Amazon hopes will change the way you shop on your phone and off.

Innovations like the Fire’s Firefly object recognition technology and its Dynamic Perspective display have played important roles in the device since inception. The $199 smartphone, which works exclusively on AT&T’s network, goes on sale July 25.

“Our job is to build the greatest device we know how to build and then customers will choose,” Bezos told Re/code in an interview. “The other job we have is to be patient.”

The hard part starts now.

We caught up with Bezos shortly after the Fire phone’s launch on Wednesday to discuss how the project came together.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview:

Re/code: Who do you see as the initial customers for the Fire phone? Is it first-time smartphone buyers or existing smartphone owners?

Bezos: It’ll be both. Primarily it will be people who are highly engaged Amazon customers, people who are Amazon Prime customers. I think it will be people who already love the Amazon ecosystem.

Very rarely in business do you succeed with a product that is not differentiated in some useful way. It is easy to be differentiated. It’s difficult to be differentiated in a way that is useful.

A little over four years ago, Fire phone took form. It didn’t have that name at that time. The ideas were things like Dynamic Perspective.

Was Dynamic Perspective an idea from day one?

Absolutely. So was Firefly. We had lots of other ideas and we talked and debated and went back and forth.

Over time the phrase “advanced technology” has come to mean “technology that almost works” in the minds of many customers. So autoscroll — this gesture where you can scroll one-handed — that’s the kind of thing we wanted to actually work. People are skeptical initially. We put four years of work into [that feature] to make it really robust.

Did you try to do Dynamic Perspective with just a front-facing camera?

We had prototypes early on using just the front-facing camera. It doesn’t work for so many reasons. It wouldn’t be power-efficient enough. You can’t leave your front-facing camera on all the time. The field of view is too narrow. You can’t do it with just one camera — not robustly.

You mentioned power efficiency. Was battery life an issue with Dynamic Perspective?

We’ve designed [Dynamic Perspective] to be on full-time. The phone has a big battery to start with. And we worked hard to make sure it would deliver the battery life people expect from a premium smartphone.

With Fire you haven’t really done anything to the traditional economics of smartphones.

It’s not a major shift … The price is aggressive if you look at what we’ve put into the phone. To be able to offer a 32GB phone with that feature set, four corner cameras and everything that is there at $199? That’s a very aggressive price point for a phone that premium. The structure of the [monthly] payments and all of that — that’s what AT&T does.

There seem to be some opportunities with AT&T and sponsored data. Would you ever subsidize data service?

If customers are interested in that. It is something we would look at in the future.

Is the Fire phone entirely Amazon-made?

It’s made by contract manufacturers, as all phones are. But it’s completely designed by us in Seattle and California.

You’d like other developers to build apps that take advantage of Dynamic Perspective.

That’s critical. There’s never been an important new sensor on a phone that third-party developers haven’t found some ingenious application for. Developers are going to find wonderful things to do with Dynamic Perspective.

For the team that built the phone and the [Dynamic Perspective software development kit], this is kind of like a child graduating from college — you can’t wait to see what they go off and do in their life. Same thing with Firefly.

Developers like new technologies, but they also like big market opportunities. Does Amazon need to do anything special to compensate for the Fire phone’s lack of a large installed base?

We have really good documentation, really good tools and a really good team. … We’ll do all the normal things … that help developers, but nothing out of the ordinary. We’re going to get developers who want to play with these SDKs and see if they can’t create something super cool — we already have.

Do you plan to sell the Fire phone internationally?

Stay tuned.

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