It was a long time coming, but Amazon on Wednesday finally announced its smartphone. And it offers plenty of cool features! You get a full year of Amazon Prime for free. There’s a dynamic perspective display; Mayday support; free unlimited photo storage, and a new service called Firefly that gives you immediate access to millions of items, all available through Amazon. But I’m not going to buy one—I’d be surprised if anyone does.
Look, the phone isn’t all bad. The features listed above are great, and help make the Fire Phone unique among the many Android devices currently available. That’s exactly what Amazon needs in order to separate itself from the Galaxy S5, HTC One (M8) and (eventually) the iPhone 6. Mayday in particular is huge because it gives users access to the service at anytime, year-round, and even lets you connect through 3G/4G in addition to Wi-Fi.
But once Amazon’s event wrapped up, I was left feeling thoroughly nonplussed. The company clearly spent a lot of time creating this 4.7-inch doohickey, but it’s obvious this is tailored to please one customer, and one customer only: the Amazon loyalist. Which Galaxy S5 owner would willingly switch, and why? Why would an iPhone user, on the heels of iOS 8’s announcement, give up the Apple ecosystem, which is far superior? They wouldn’t—at least in any significant numbers.
The Kindle Fire HDX is cheap. Kindle Paperwhite? Cheap. And so on. Even Prime, which just received a price hike, returns so much value despite it being $20 more that you hardly notice. These products and services have sold in the millions, as Amazon said, because they offer terrific value, and the price of entry verges on impulse territory. It’s this kind of approach that Amazon thrives on, but that seemingly went out the window when the Fire Phone’s price was announced. $200. This is the Moto X all over again. I’d still choose the Moto X, for what that’s worth.
By the way, that $200 price is with a two-year contract. If you want this thing unlocked, you’re looking to spend about $650, giving you one very expensive Amazon toy that will be used to buy other Amazon stuff. By Amazon, for Amazon. Other, more popular devices, like the Galaxy S5 and even the LG G3, are also $200, but offer much greater app store access and better overall freedom to do as you please. Amazon just tried its best imitation of Apple’s first iPhone announcement, offering the hardware, software and closed services, but missed the mark by a mile.
Lack of Apps
Amazon’s Android app store has improved tremendously over the past few years, to the point where it’s passable for most Kindle Fire users. But an Android or iOS user making the switch? I imagine it would be akin to moving to a foreign country. I’m searching through the store right now, and there are some big absentees—if you’re a big Google fan, you can probably guess what I’m getting at.
Granted, that doesn’t mean the bigger apps won’t be available at some point (there are already Android counterparts, after all). Some apps that aren’t available right now—Instagram and WhatsApp—are seemingly headed to the Android app store via the image you see above. But, and this is probably a deal-breaker for most Android users, none of Google’s services will be available, and that’s an absolute travesty. Maybe you don’t use Gmail, or Google Maps, or Hangouts, or Drive, or All Access. But the majority of people do—mostly on their phones, I’d wager—which puts the Fire Phone at a huge disadvantage. Our phones have become increasingly important for productivity, and the lack of Google access is definitely a big deal.
Most of the bigger apps are available, or will be (there’s doesn’t appear to be Snapchat yet). You can get Facebook and Twitter and Vine. But the Android app store isn’t the first place you look for the latest apps, and that’s something you can’t say for iOS or, to an extent, the Google Play store. With the Fire Phone finally announced, however, that could change in a big way—it could finally be the nudge developers need to bring parity, but don’t count on it.
This is just dumb. T-Mobile CEO John Legere went on a tirade over Twitter this week about the phone’s exclusivity to AT&T, and he has a point. Why, in 2014, is a phone exclusive to a particular carrier? That was a common practice a few years back, but for the most part devices are available on all or a majority of the Big Four carriers here in the U.S., which makes the nature of the exclusive so strange.
Wider access means more interest, and more interest means (in theory) more sales. But with such limited availability, there likely won’t be very many users willing to jump ship from a competing carrier specifically for the Fire Phone—or any phone, really—especially if they’re stuck in the middle of an existing contract. Most customers on their respective carrier can have their pick of the litter, but not this time. It doesn’t make sense.
This feature sounds fun, and seems to have impressed some early Amazon testers. But I am not quite understanding why it exists. Known as Dynamic Perspective, images on the screen will move around depending on how it’s tilted and where your face is; Amazon actually spent an inordinate amount of time explaining the four front-facing cameras, which sport a 120-degree field of view. These cameras are always watching you, too, ensuring that whatever is on your screen (depending on that app) gives you that fake “3d effect.”
Amazon says this will introduce more immersive apps and games, and maybe it will. But a lot of it is presented as one big gimmick, something that seems more annoying than useful. A lot of what Amazon promises is simply a way to get around your phone with one hand. But will it enhance the experience or just be annoying? We’ll have to wait and see. One example Amazon mentions on its site is that people will be able to pan 90 degrees to the left and right through the Stubhub stadium view. What about just using your finger to scroll? Our levels of laziness know no bounds.
And how will this affect overall battery life? That’s something Amazon didn’t really touch on, so it will be very crucial to see how it holds up after a solid day’s use. Battery is paramount to a phone’s success, and if the new dynamic feature sucks it all away, it’ll lead to a lot of unhappy users.
First Generation Problems
Nothing is good on the first try. Samsung’s Galaxy Gear? Awful. The iPhone? Even that had problems, and lacked a number of features. Amazon has dipped its toes in the tablet market, but a smartphone is an entirely different beast, and there are bound to be problems. The UI, for example, is an offshoot of what’s available for its Kindle Fire tablets, and will likely need a ton of work once the phone is released. That’s all assuming the device will work as planned; there could be hardware issues, camera issues, etc. The possibilities are endless.
This might be a non-issue, but history tells us there will definitely be some major first-generation issues. That doesn’t mean the Fire Phone won’t be great down the road, but for now owning one seems like a gamble, especially considering the kind of quality we get out of other competing devices.
There are a few major selling points going for the Fire Phone. For one, Mayday is still one of the best mobile services available, and can bring a level of certainty that not many other phones offer. If Dad, who historically doesn’t know his way around technology, can grasp the Fire Phone with the help of Mayday, that’s hugely important, and will build trust (Amazon touched on this quite a bit during its presentation).
The other is Firefly, which essentially allows the phone to identify anything and everything with hardly any effort. The service is capable of recognizing media, household items, phone numbers, and much more, making it the most powerful Amazon tool in existence. Think of it as Dash, but on steroids. When an item is recognized, like dish soap, for example, Amazon can bring up that product’s details, and you can order it straight from your phone. This could eliminate trips to the store altogether, and makes buying stuff so insanely simple it’s not even funny.
But, on first impression, the Fire Phone presents more problems than solutions, and I don’t see it really disrupting the status quo, especially at $200 on-contract. There are a lot of other smaller little details that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos skimmed over, so there’s a very real possibility I’ll change my mind. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to giving this a shot, because I really loved the Kindle Fire HDX, and I am a proud owner of the Kindle Paperwhite. But if I had to tell someone right this second if I would buy this or not, I’d respond with a resounding “no.”
I don’t give a lick about specs, and I think the design is pretty all right. But the lack of Google services, the high price, the exclusivity, and the weird 3D interface all give me pause. I hope I’m wrong when the device finally comes out on July 25.