Today Amazon unveiled their first foray into the smartphone world with the new Fire Phone. I followed along on a few tech blogs as they live blogged the event, as I was quite interested in what this device would be. Amazon as a company isn’t really my cup of tea, but Jeff Bezos as a CEO is probably the closest thing around to a Steve Jobs type of presenter, which is in and of itself something to see.
The Fire Phone had been heavily rumoured for a few months, with most of the rumoured features coming true. As expected, it isn’t a “spec beast”, though certainly not a slouch, and relies more on unique and user centric features. Things like:
- 3d Display capabilities
- Extra front facing cameras to track user movement
- The interesting Firefly feature that uses the microphone and camera to identify things like songs, TV shows, Art, and other consumer goods
- The Mayday feature that hooks you up with live person to person Amazon tech support
This is on top of a device running a Snapdragon 800 processor, 2 GB RAM, 32GB/64GB internal storage, a 13 megapixel camera with OIS, and an ultra bright 720p screen.
Spec wise, many tech enthusiasts are calling it mid-range. I don’t really agree with that, but I do agree that it is a step (a small step) behind current flagships. That being said, making a consumer centric device doesn’t mean that you need to engage in the spec race. Amazon seems more keen on selling this device to run of the mill consumers, rather than the die hard tech geeks that tend to follow such product unveilings.
So those unique features coupled with some decent specs were certainly interesting. I am a firm believer that shoring up the user experience and coming in with useful rather than gimmicky features is the way to go. Amazon, I think, was going for something along those lines, but I think they missed the mark with some of their decisions.
For starters, they made this device an AT&T exclusive. Limiting your potential market share to a single carrier in a single country just doesn’t seem like a solid plan. As innovative as the Fire Phone may be, it simply doesn’t have the same panache as the original iPhone had when it convinced people across the United States to dump their cell provider and go with AT&T. It’s not that the Fire Phone is unworthy, it’s just that the mobile landscape has changed too much since then. Now Amazon may move away from this exclusivity at some point, and I certainly hope that they will release it in other countries, but their track record hasn’t been one of excessive speed in this regard.
The second issue is price. Priced at $199/$299 on contract (for the 32GB/64GB versions) and $649/$749 off contract, the Fire Phone comes priced more or less just like any other flagship device. To be blunt, that is a huge missed opportunity. The Kindle Fire line of tablets made waves by being launched at a then unheard of price. It was cheap, it was good, and it let Amazon grab a chunk of market share right off the bat. The pricing on the Fire Phone just doesn’t do that. Instead of offering an incredible value for the device (which has generally been the Amazon strategy with both hardware and services) it’s price value can be summed up in a single word: “meh”. Amazon isn’t Apple, they can’t charge that extra premium for their devices. They also aren’t the other Android OEMs like Samsung, LG or HTC which charge a price for the beastly specs and power features. Instead they are left charging a premium price for a device with unique features, but not the power specs that most people are used to. That isn’t best value for the dollar. That’s wishful thinking.
The problem that goes along with the pricing, and why the pricing is such a mind boggler is that this device is more or less a device geared to having the user buy more Amazon content. It really is a portal for buying more stuff from them, which is one of the big reasons why the upfront cost should be so much more appealing than it is: Once you buy in, they continue to profit from you. That was the whole point of the low price on the Kindle Fire tablet. By selling the tablet for a lower profit upfront, they knew they’d make the money back later on. For whatever reason, they haven’t taken this approach with the Fire Phone.
This product ties you up so closely with the Amazon ecosystem that you have to really fight if you want to get away from it. Other mobile operating systems want to tie you into their ecosystems as well, but not this tight. Even Apple with it’s very closed off iOS has other options for content acquisition. Amazon is doing their best to push something of a content monopoly. And that’s what’s so baffling here. For such a consumer centric device, the consumer is left with very few real options. Then couple this with the Firefly feature that is essentially a fancy way for the user to identify and then be able to purchase new content, from Amazon of course, and you have what is essentially the home shopping network in your pocket. With all of that ability to continue making money off of every customer, why does this device carry such a premium price tag?
The last problem I see with this device is a simple one: Who is this device targeting? People heavily into the Apple ecosystem? Highly doubtful. iPhone users have a very high level of brand loyalty, they generally have a different definition of what “premium” entails, and enjoy a device with a very different feature set and way of working. Tech enthusiasts? I don’t see it. Generally they want the latest and greatest in technology, like to switch devices often, and dislike having limits placed upon them, and this is a device built on such limits. Enterprise? Definitely not.
So where does that leave us? People that are uncommitted to an ecosystem, want to try something new, have a strong love of Amazon (and more importantly Amazon Prime) and are on the AT&T network. That is a *very* limited customer base. A very limited customer base in a country with a high level of flagship level device saturation, with little wiggle room for a new entrant.
I want to like their approach and I want to like their device, but I just don’t see why they went the route they did. It’s like they purposely put themselves in a corner without a clear way out. At the end of the day I find myself asking: “In what situation is this the best device a person can buy?”. I have yet to find a good answer.