Amazon finally unveiled its long-anticipated smartphone Wednesday. So, what's the verdict?
Dubbed Fire Phone, it incorporates a couple of differentiated technologies such as Firefly and dynamic perspective. I find them impressive.
Yet I don't think I'm alone regarding Amazon's strategy — pushing its own hardware, not the app, so closely tied to its own store and services — somewhat puzzling and even a little offensive. With so many smartphones to choose from, why would any consumers opt for a Fire Phone that's blatantly self-serving for Amazon and doesn't even include the Google Play store?
Database of coded objects
First, let's talk technology. Integrated in the phone is “Firefly,” a feature designed to recognize “over 100 million” items, according to Amazon, from the information Fire Phone captures through its cameras and microphone.
The consumer is instructed to point the Fire phone at an object. Fire Phone will scan the object, record its information, and identify it, using the database in the Amazon Web Services cloud. Once identified, the item appears on screen, where more information appears — mainly that you can buy it from Amazon. Just add it to your cart automatically — without even touching a keyboard.
So what are the basic building blocks for Firefly?
Richard Doherty, research director at the Envisioneering Group, breaks it down:
High-resolution cameras and always-on 3G and 4G services; probably does not need a quad core CPU. Low light level and IR night vision cameras. It needs audio for picking up ambient sound, music, TV soundtrack, movie soundtracks. On the back end, you need a fast, seemingly endless AWS [Amazon Web Services] cloud — as Amazon has architected, for Firefly to work its recognition magic quickly.
Firefly works by comparing imagery, bar codes, QR Codes, words (OCR), and sounds within Amazon's massive — and always growing — database of coded objects in the AWS cloud, Doherty explains.
As Ian Fogg, senior principal analyst at IHS Technology, says, “Firefly is using a combination of on-device software which creates a 'fingerprint' of the image, which is small enough to upload and for Amazon's cloud database to analyze and report back a match.” However, to my question about whether this feature only works on Fire Phone, Fogg adds that it's unclear if Firefly depends on the Fire smartphone's hardware.
Fire Phone's 3D-style interface, called “dynamic perspective,” is another technology worth mentioning. The innovative interface uses multiple cameras to create a 3D effect on a 2D 4.7″ HD panel.
In essence, the dynamic perspective uses multiple cameras combined with infrared lights to track the owners head in real-time and adjust the display to provide a compelling effect, according to Fogg.
As interesting as it sounds, this thrill carries a penalty. He speculates, “The use of at least two cameras at a time, and the need for infrared lights to assist in lower light levels may affect the battery life of the Fire smartphone.”
Another challenge is third-party app developers. In order to develop apps tailored to such new features as dynamic perspective, Amazon needs a lot of developers. Without a groundswell of developer support, “Amazon will either need to accept fewer apps supporting the features and so reduced differentiation for the Fire, or it will have to pay for developers to code for its smartphone, raising Amazon's costs and making it even harder to push its smartphone strategy into the black.”
While there is no formal SDK (for dynamic perspective) yet, Envisioneering's Doherty said that he expects to hear more details at Google IO next week.
Reducing a phone to a shopping scanner
Now, let's talk about why I'm not quite thrilled about Amazon's business strategy. Don't get me wrong. I see the convenience of having your phone tell you what you're looking at, giving you more information, and helping you decide — to buy or not buy — all on your phone. In my mind, Amazon is essentially pitching Fire Phone as a portable scanner for the 24-hour shopping experience.
Yes, it's consumerism's magic wand. But there's the rub. A phone whose function has been reduced to a shopping scanner is a kind of progress difficult for me embrace. Fire Phone compels you to view things around you constantly in transactional terms. I love shopping, but I don't live to shop. I don't want my phone to be all about shopping.
Fire Phone not having the Google Play store is also a big negative. As IHS's Fogg pointed out, that means “it lacks the important Google apps which consumers expect on smartphones.” The analyst adds, “Android smartphone owners [who] switch to Fire will have to leave their existing apps behind.” Not good.
Further, this question: Aren't there more than 100 million objects in the world to look at? Indeed. He says this is just a fraction of the number of objects in the world. “Similar functionality is available on other smartphones through apps such as Google Goggles. It has not proved to be a compelling application.”
Above all, I believe the “ultimate” shopping experience should be made available as an app, not as hardware. Shopping is a smartphone app, but not the most important app.
I think IHS's Fogg nailed it when he wrote back to me yesterday in an email:
Given most of Amazon's mobile customers will continue to use iPhones and other smartphone makers' smartphone models for the foreseeable future, we recommend Amazon should make Firefly an app available on other handsets as soon as possible if Amazon is to maximize its retail sales.
Sure, as Envisioneering's Doherty tells me, Amazon is “first and foremost a trusted sales and services company.” Maybe so. But are you going to shell out $199 (the price of the 32GB version of Fire Phone) tied to a single store (Amazon) and to a single carrier (AT&T)?
A phone for shopping might seem like a great leap forward for Jeff Bezos, but probably not so much for the rest of us.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times
This article was originally published on EBN's sister publication EE Times.