History is repeating itself, and Amazon is not learning from its past mistakes. Amazon’s announcement of its long anticipated cell phone on Wednesday showed a phone with interesting features, but almost surely fatal weaknesses.
One of the big problems with the phone is the same problem that already exists with Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets – the limited subset of Android that you can access with the device.
In the case of the Kindle Fire tablet, at least Amazon offered rock bottom pricing and top quality feature sets, but even with those plus points, the once substantial market share of the Fire has dropped down to immeasurable irrelevance at around 1% of tablet sales during the last quarter. Astonishingly, the enormous marketing giant that is Amazon can’t even keep hold of a 1% market share in tablets, and this at a time when Apple’s market share is plunging and there’s plenty of market share ‘up for grabs’.
Although we agree the Kindle Fire doesn’t even deserve a 1% market share, we’re astonished that Amazon hasn’t done a better job of selling the tablet to some ‘low lying fruit’ market sectors such as people unfamiliar with tablets but highly trusting of Amazon.
And now we have the Fire phone. It too is powered by an Amazon-limited subset of the Android operating system, and it too is designed to be not just a phone, but also a conduit into the Amazon eco-system, making it easy to buy products on Amazon, and also, for Amazon Prime members, to stream free video, listen to free music, and read free books.
The phone itself is a reasonably decent, middle of the road type smartphone. It has two special features. One is a set of four cameras on the front that are all the time looking at you to understand where your head and eyes are and what you are looking at, and to sometimes adjust the image you see on the phone screen accordingly. These cameras will even see you in the dark, because there are four invisible infra-red beams also shining at you from the phone. Those of us who still like at least a pretense of privacy can decide how much we like the idea of a phone which is watching us, nonstop, day and night.
The other special feature, called ‘Firefly’, uses the various cameras on the phone (it has six in total)to recognize things you photograph. And, once it has recognized something, it will, ahem, offer to sell it to you through your Amazon account. If nothing else, this will make it much easier to comparison price shop when browsing through a bricks and mortar store, something most of us probably do from time to time.
Firefly will also recognize not just objects but phone numbers, songs, television programs and movies, and to be fair, Firefly will also offer to tell you interesting things about the objects it recognizes as well as offer to sell them to you.
I’d be tempted to get one of these phones, and so too might many other people, so as to play with its novel new features and perhaps to take advantage of the Firefly feature for price comparisons and easy Amazon shopping. But – and here’s the problem.
The phone is expensive. Way way too expensive. It is also available only with AT&T. If you sign up for a new two-year contract, you’re paying $199 or $299 for the phone depending on its storage capacity, plus probably a minimum of about $100 a month to AT&T for service.
If you want the phone with no service plan, be ready to pay $649 for a 32GB phone or $749 for a 64GB phone – and still then pay something a month, probably $50 or more with T-Mobile (the phone is compatible with T-Mobile voice frequencies and at least some T-mobile data frequencies; but is not compatible with Verizon or Sprint voice).
For a limited time the phone comes complete with a year of free Amazon Prime membership (otherwise costing $99). It will be available for sale/delivery on 25 July.
So, a very expensive phone with very restricted distribution. How successful do you think that will be?
Most of all, the biggest aspect of the phone – and the biggest benefit to Amazon – is probably its Firefly product recognition feature. How long will it be before Amazon releases this as a free app on all other smartphones? Just like Amazon has released its Kindle ereading software free for every other possible computer platform, won’t it seek to release the Firefly service as widely as possible, too? It is clearly in Amazon’s best interests to make it as easy as possible for everyone to buy everything from them, all the time, and so Firefly should be released for free to all smartphones as soon as possible.
So we see no reason at all to choose this phone, and plenty of reasons not to. The most fire like aspect of this phone will probably be the fire-sale process in which Amazon finds itself eventually forced to unload a massive quantity of unsold handsets.
Our pick for best phone currently? ‘None of the above’. Force yourself to be patient, like us, and wait for the new iPhone 6 – hopefully to be released in September. If current rumors are close to correct, Apple will finally catch up with the rest of the market and offer us a phone with a decent sized screen, and we feel it definitely worth waiting the short while until then in the hope the new iPhone 6 will be all it potentially could be.