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What we learned about Amazon's Fire Phone

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos demonstrates his company's new smartphone.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos demonstrates his company's new smartphone.
Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images

Amazon, as expected, debuted its new smartphone yesterday with the promise of creating a different experience from rival iPhone, Android and Windows Phone devices.

For the most part, Amazon's new phone brings unique elements to the table with new features that distinguish the device from other phones. At the same time, the phone also has limitations in its availability and has price similarities to the competition. The company's first foray into smartphones represents a bold step in an attempt to break into an already crowded market, and Amazon's phone gears itself towards standing out. Here are some of the key takeaways from Amazon's event:

The Good

  • Phone Specs: The Fire Phone features a 4.7-inch display with a 720p resolution along with Gorilla Glass 3 on the front and back of the phone. It will also be LTE-compatible and run on a customized Android-based Fire operating system. Amazon also prides itself on high-quality stereo speakers and tangle-free headphones.
  • Camera: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said his company's new smartphone takes better pictures than the iPhone 5S and the Galaxy S5, and its 13-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization gives credibility to that claim. Users of the phone can also store all their photos on Amazon's cloud drive for free, which compares favorably against cloud storage solutions that offer limited amounts of space for free before requiring a payment plan.
  • Firefly: It's no surprise that Amazon, the world's largest online retailer, would include a feature in its phone to help its users search for products on its online store. The initiative comes in the form of Firefly, a search protocol that uses the phone's camera and microphone to recognize and find over a hundred million products in its database. Firefly can recognize items from pictures or listen for audio from movies, TV shows and music and direct users to where they can buy those products on Amazon plans to open up the protocol up to third party developers; the company demonstrated at its event how health apps can use Firefly to quickly recognize food and provide nutritional information to users.
  • Mayday: The Kindle Fire HDX's frequently-advertised Mayday feature, a button that quickly connects users to Amazon tech support to answer a magnitude of questions, will also be available to Fire Phone owners. While the normal response time for the Kindle Fire HDX is under 10 seconds, it remains to be seen how adding more devices will affect the performance of the service.
  • Integration: Owners of both the Fire Phone and the Fire TV can expect integration similar to how Apple TV devices interface with iOS and Mac products, allowing display mirroring at launch and opening up the possibility for other applications.

The Bad

  • Price: Amazon could have better positioned its phone in the heavily saturated smartphone market by offering an attractive price compared to other manufacturers, but the company instead priced its device similarly to many other smartphones. A Fire Phone with 32GB of storage starts at $199 with a two-year contract, a price point similar to the starting rate of a new iPhone 5S. Much like how Amazon sells cheaper Kindle devices that allow advertisements, the Kindle Phone could have been priced cheaper and undercut the competition in a similar manner, especially considering how its Firefly service helps to direct more traffic towards its web store.
  • No Bluetooth LE Support: One of the more interesting surprises from yesterday's announcement involved what isn't included with the phone. While the Fire Phone comes with Bluetooth, it doesn't support Bluetooth LE, a low-power protocol used in newer smartphones allowing interaction wearables like Fitbit. Despite having the hardware capability to run it, the phone will only support up to Bluetooth 3.0 at launch. Amazon said it plans to support LE in a future software update, but it remains to be seen when that update will roll out.
  • Only One Carrier: When the Fire Phone launches next month, it will only be available on the AT&T network in the United States. The move limits the potential customer base, especially with many cell phone customers locked into contractual agreements making them unable to switch carriers easily.
  • Limited Capabilities: The phone's several unique features like Firefly and the dynamic interface allow third-party developers to program unique features, but the device will rely on those developers to warm up to the technology and create new features. Until then, the phone has more aspirations than tangible features to sell itself on.

Bottom Line

While Amazon makes a compelling case for its vision of the future of smartphones, the features may not be enough to sway iPhone, Android or Windows Phone users into switching devices yet. The first generation of the device seems similar to the first-generation iPhone, which generated interest with its unique approach, but took a couple generations to grow into its own vision. The Fire Phone may face the same obstacles, with the first generation establishing the path and future iterations of the phone perfecting new features. Third party developers may prove to be the difference maker in the success of the device, especially if they find creative ways to take advantage of the technology in a way that consumers can embrace. The phone launches July 25 in the United States and comes with one year of Amazon Prime for free.

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