Will Amazon’s Fire Phone ignite passions of smartphone buyers in a lacklustre market?

19 Jun 2014

Amazon last night revealed its first smartphone aptly named the Fire Phone, because in a world of samey devices it’s about time somebody lit a match under the backsides tech giants whose latest device launches feel more like marketing events than innovation breakthroughs.

The problem with the smartphone world is the manufacturers are running out of ideas and most of the time it’s hard to differentiate between a Samsung or an HTC. The only thing they can offer that is different is perhaps camera filters, smart covers and lately fitness apps. Apple’s iOS 8 promises to offer interesting building blocks for apps in terms of HealthKit and HomeKit but in reality there has been no wow moment since the iPhone’s first reveal in 2007. Is there a problem? Oh, let’s rename an airport terminal or throw up a few more billboards …

So last night, Amazon’s enigmatic CEO Jeff Bezos revealed the Fire. On first perusal it looks like the current gamut of smartphones, a shiny black slab with a 4.7-inch display.

But look closer and you’ll notice that as well as the main cameras on the front and back at each of the device’s four corners, there is an additional camera. Finally, a mobile phone manufacturer (albeit for its first smartphone) has done something differently.

A ‘dynamic perspective’ on the future of smartphones

fire phone

Amazon calls this feature Dynamic Perspective – it’s not just a camera feature, it is part of the phone’s main interface. Not only does it render what you are looking at in glorious 3D, it uses different layers to give you information, such as Yelp reviews.

The device uses a new sensor system that recognises things in the real world, capturing web and email addresses, phone numbers, QR and bar codes, movies and music and lets you trigger an action – be it e-commerce, storage, search – by hitting what it calls its Firefly button.

“Fire Phone puts everything you love about Amazon in the palm of your hand – instant access to Amazon’s vast content ecosystem and exclusive features, such as the Mayday button, ASAP, Second Screen, X-Ray, free unlimited photo storage, and more,” Bezos said.

“The Firefly button lets you identify printed web and email addresses, phone numbers, QR and bar codes, artwork, and over 100m items, including songs, movies, TV shows, and products – and take action in seconds. We invented a new sensor system called Dynamic Perspective that recognises where a user’s head is relative to the device – we use it to offer customers a more immersive experience, one-handed navigation, and gestures that actually work. And this is only the beginning – the most powerful inventions are the ones that empower others to unleash their creativity – that’s why today we are launching the Dynamic Perspective SDK and the Firefly SDK – we can’t wait to see how developers surprise us.”

It’s not a phone, it’s an e-commerce machine

In reality, what Amazon has created here is not only a viable new ecosystem for app developers and content providers, it has created an e-commerce machine for consumers and one which will no doubt serve Amazon itself very well.

The Fire Phone comes with some interesting tricks, thanks to Dynamic Perspective, which uses four ultra low-power specialised cameras and four infrared LEDs to enable real-time computer algorithms.

These tricks include the ability to read a long web page or book without having to touch the screen, the ability to see front and back views of items you may be looking at on the Amazon shopping app and the ability to look around corners in games. Property information or breaking news based on where you are standing is pushed to the front screen and the Firefly function identifies details on posters and business cards, or can recognise music in the background or on a screen and link you to 245,000 movies and TV shows and 35m songs.

A Mayday function will connect the device owner to an Amazon expert within 15 seconds or less to resolve a problem, while X-Ray utilises services such as IMDB to give users more information about a TV show or movie with a single tap of a button.

Another cool feature is Second Screen, which allows you to fling video content from the phone to a TV screen via Fire TV or PlayStation or any other Miracast-enabled device.

In terms of hardware specs, the device is powered by a Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 2.2 GHz processor and 2GB of RAM. It has a 13-megapixel rear-racing camera and features dual stereo speakers with Dolby Digital Plus.

The device is currently only available in the US via AT&T, but it is clear Amazon is intent on igniting competition in a smartphone market whose innovation engine is slowing and where competitive spirit right now can be described as staid at best.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years