Tech Flash - Fire Phone Launch

In front of a rapt crowd of 300 hand-picked journalists, bloggers, and Amazon fans (culled from over 60,000 individuals who’d submitted video pleas to be included), Jeff Bezos unveiled the latest addition to the eCommerce titan’s portfolio of products designed to make shopping more frictionless and shoppers more loyal: The Amazon Fire Phone. The Fire Phone joins the original Kindle and the Kindle Fire Tablet (now in its third generation) as physical devices branded and manufactured by Amazon. The original Kindle reinvented publishing, essentially launching the e-book era; meanwhile, the Fire Tablet has been a middling success at best, moving about 6 million units during the past holiday season (by contrast, Apple sold over 20 million iPads and Samsung over 10 million assorted Galaxy tablets ).

So what are we to make of the Fire Phone?

Physically, the Fire Phone is almost indistinguishable from most of its Apple, Android and Windows rivals — a sleek black slab with a 4.7 inch screen. Its performance should be snappy, given its 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor and 2GB of RAM. It comes with 32GB of memory for $199 and 64GB for $299 (with a two-year AT&T contract, its exclusive provider — and, at least for now, afree one-year Amazon Prime subscription, worth $99…which Amazon quite surprisingly under-promoted in its unveiling of the device).

For consumers, the funkiest aspect of the phone and the one that might offer the most immediate “wow factor” is Dynamic Perspective, which gives the illusion of depth to images by rotating them as the phone is tilted — something accomplished by the Fire Phone’s innovative face-tracking system, which is accomplished through the use of four front-facing cameras (which, in addition to a fifth front-facing camera for video chatting and the 13-megapixel rear camera, means that the phone has six image-capturing sensors — wow).

Is there really a use-case for this? Well, Dynamic Perspective allows “layered” information to be exposed through tilting, so mapping and location-based systems should benefit (though the question is how much more useful this will be compared to existing tools like Android Compass, Layar or the all-but-forgotten Yelp Monocle). The new interface also offers some promise for virtual product examination and demo, but it’s impossible to tell without seeing it in full effect whether it’s more “gimmick” or “gimme.” Ultimately, the most interesting innovation opportunity might be in gaming (there’s an SDK that allows developers to build the 3D effect into their own apps — though devs haven’t exactly lined up to make dedicated games for the Fire TV or Fire Tablet). For now at least, it’s primarily a novelty. And yet it’s not wrong to say that this system alone makes the Fire Phone the first mass-appeal mobile device that offers a fundamentally new user experience since the original iPhone, which mainstreamed the touchscreen interface.

The phone’s real innovation may lie in another feature: Firefly, which allows users to snap pictures of real-world products and be instantly taken to an Amazon product page to purchase that product — presumably at a lower price. It’s not quite “zero-click” buying (you still have to consummate the transaction on the site), but if  “showrooming” was a warning shot across the bow for bricks and mortar retailers, this feature could prove to be a full-on torpedo into the stern. Will it catch on with consumers? Time will tell. And if it does, the fact is, there’s little that prevents Amazon from bringing Firefly to competing phones as a standalone app as well. That could mean major hurt for traditional retail players.

We do really like Amazon’s Mayday service, already available on Fire Tablets, which brings near-instant, one-click connection to a technical support agent who can answer questions or help with problems for free. That’s something against which few competitors can compete — given the need for huge standing on-call teams to support the service.

But a pressing issue with the Fire Phone may well be Amazon’s increasingly broad and tight grip on very intimate consumer information — the most intimate data available, which is to say, what, when, and for whom we’re willing to spend actual money. Real transaction data is hugely more valuable than, say, what we search for or click on on the Internet, and harder to come by…and Amazon, with 250 million customers, has access to perhaps the biggest supply of such data in the world. With the Fire Phone, they’ll be able to add another set of layers to this purchase cycle data, increasingly gathering information on the context of purchasing, the “why” in why people buy.

At the very least, Amazon’s ownership of a proprietary mobile platform could readily disrupt the fast-growing mobile advertising space. But setting up a potentially more powerful and creepy set of opportunities, by owning the “whole consumer widget” — the user experience, the “metal,” the software and the relationship — Amazon will have the ability to insert itself into any point on the chain between discovery and ultimate purchase. (Interestingly, the one thing that the Fire Phone curiously doesn’t seek to own, at least not yet, is the consumer’s virtual wallet. It seemed like a sure thing that the company would try to extend its Amazon Payments framework to mobile via the Fire Phone.)

Will consumers feel comfortable giving Amazon such immense power over their decision making journeys? Time will tell. But Amazon is intent on pushing the envelope on gathering intimate data and erasing boundaries that protect consumer privacy. The question is where or whether the consumer will start to push back.

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