Amazon's Fire Phone Misfires?

Last week, Amazon unveiled the much-anticipated or at least much-hyped 3D smart phone, following up with an email to all its customers introducing the phone with the slogan "The First Smartphone Designed by Amazon".

That slogan sounds a bit strange since the Amazon brand is not associated with product design excellence so "the first blah designed by Amazon" does not really carry much weight with us - Amazon did pioneer the eBook reader business with Kindle and dominates it, but that's not because of its elegant design, more because of ready availability of the content at bargain prices, which in turn is based on  Amazon’s willingness to sell both the device and eBooks at a loss to gain market share.  Brilliant business strategy, perhaps, but IMHO, that does not set Amazon as a product design excellence star. All that slogan does is tell us that Amazon is not too proud to be (just) a company that efficiently operates warehouses and packs & delivers stuff promptly, it wants to be more like Apple. "First Smartphone designed by Amazon" sounds as compelling as (hypothetically speaking) "First air plane designed by Fedex" or "First CAT scanner designed by Microsoft" would. 

The device makes an obvious attempt to take on the iPhone—but in a  world where more features don’t necessarily invite automatic accolades but keep new technology ripe for controversy, and in some cases, like Google glass, subject the adopter to physical assault —the features boasted by Amazon’s Fire Phone beg to be dissected with a bit more detail and scrutiny.

Here is what we found to be the Good, May be Not so Good and downright Ugly about Amazon’s Fire Smartphone.

The Good: First, let’s take a look at “Dynamic Perspective” technology. This essentially refers to a 3D display that doesn't require glasses—auto stereoscopic technology that’s been around for almost twenty years. In fact, we believe Amazon is cleverly avoiding use of the word “3D” to distance itself from the lack luster success of such displays in 3D phones launched by LG and Samsung.  The technology used requires the phone to track user's eyes so the display can show a slightly different image to each of the eyes, resulting in creation of a the 3D composite image in our brains. Amazon Fire uses four infrared sensors (“cameras”) to do so. The 3D effect, or Dynamic effect by itself could be pretty cool. For example, when you tilt the phone or move your head while looking at an object or a building on the device, you will not only see it in 3D but rest of the image around it will change as well. Watch the video from Cnet below to see this feature in action. 

Amazon has put these sensors to good use. In addition to help giving the user a 3D view (aka Dynamic perspective), they use these to track movement of the phone in reference to your face to control your device by just tilting or swiveling it, and sometimes simply by a couple head or eye movements. The video from mashable shows how the auto-scroll feature works with a web page scrolling just by tilting the phone in relation to your eyes. 

Amazon uses the words “tilt",  "swivel" extensively to describe the behaviour of its 3D phone. Images on the phone change as it is tilted and viewed from different angles, thanks to advanced eye and face tracking capabilities. Your phone knows where your head and eyes are at all times! Tilt gestures are designed to aid in navigation, web-browsing, and even auto-scrolling to make information consumption (and product buying, but we’ll get to that later) as effortless as possible. When’s the last time you had to lift a finger to turn that pesky newspaper page? 

The Not-So-Good?

Being techies ourselves, we haven’t taken an entirely anti-cyborg stance on this simulation-style transformation of features like maps and 3D image browsing (lest we be accused the next time someone stones a Google-Glass wearer). For now, however, we still consider ourselves made of all human parts and hence we wonder about the device’s everyday usability.

The current array of touch screens can’t survive a trip in my pocket without opening up several unwanted menus, browsers, and, on occasions, changing my settings and preferences after grazing against my wallet unbeknownst to me. One stray touch during routine messaging and voila, my smartphone's voice-impute mode turns itself on and starts obeying every ambient noise in the room. 

Those who’ve tried out the Fire Phone’s ultra-sensitive head swivel controls experienced the usual practical problems. One accidental movement, or a tilt too extreme, and pages rapidly scroll to their end, images erratically zoom in and out, and a who new page of Yelp reviews pops as you try and navigate through a 3D map to locate the restaurant that you’d already decided on, thank you very much! We can easily envision a scenario where we are reading an email or a book on our phone while on a subway ride to the city, an attractive member of the opposite sex walks by, we take a furtive glance accidentally titling the phone, and voila, we're on a different page of the book or another email! 

In our opinion, Amazon should tread carefully in its late-rush to do something revolutionary with a phone. The devices introduced using similar 3D display technologies in the past few years have arguably failed, or at the minimum, haven't been spectacular commercial successes—this includes 3D smart phones like the LG Optimus 3D MAX and Samsung Galaxy 3D. While the Nintendo was able to sell several million of its 3DS game console, they had to slash the price by 40% within months of its launch to prevent it from falling on its face. 

Amazon can re-brand the 3D effect as “Dynamic Perspective” all they want but we are afraid it might remain a novelty phone bought by a few as an expensive toy unless they are really able to take the kinks out of the add-on features such as auto-scroll, page turns and menu navigation by just tilting and swiveling the phone. 

The Ugly:

Amazon features photo of a "flat" female
model in its email announcing its 3D phone 
Now, moving on to what we really found Ugly in this ambitious product, the “Firefly” feature which can supposedly recognize more than 100 million products. Despite its ambitious forays into product development with the Kindle and Fire products, the company is first and foremost the world’s largest online retailer. . Amazon’s M.O. with this device seems to be: Get smart phone users to keep buying products—buy more, buy easily, buy on-the-go—and how much better would it be if we controlled the way they do it! Thus, the shameless flaunting of the phone’s Firefly feature, which is nothing but a major enhancement to Amazon's current UPC scanner to encourage showrooming - a practice whereby a consumer examines, experiences and learns about a product in a local brick and mortar store in person - but then looks it up online on his phone to buy it for a lower price, since the online seller does not have to invest any money into show rooms, thus parasitically building it's business using the traditional retailers resources.  

The Firefly feature allows the Fire smartphone to use  image, text, and audio recognition technologies and puts them to use by cross-referencing whatever real-world product you seek to identify with their catalog of over 100-million products. All you have to do is point your smartphone at any product – a Book, a DVD, a CD, an electronic gadget, an appliance, or even a pair of shoes, and Amazon will pop up information about it including a very convenient a “Buy” button with Amazon’s price next to it So in short, making  the traditional retailer’s problematic enemy ‘showrooming’  ostentatiously easy: go to a local store, browse through their products, learn about the features from their associate and if something catches your fancy, hold down just one button to find it Amazon and buy it for a lowe price.  

In summary, The Smartphone industry is a brutal game where emerging technologies can tank due to bad timing, or more likely due to bad UI/UX design. The blogosphere is already abuzz criticizing the above-mentioned features, as well as the online giant’s other releases—a severely lacking Prime Music streaming service, amongst others—but perhaps the Internet giant will be able to refine its phone into becoming the next big thing with time. 

Meanwhile, the stock market greeted the launch of the Smartphone with a 4% drop in Amazon's stock price in the two days after the phone launch. So as far as Wall Street is concerned, the Amazon Fire phone misfired. (Disclosure: the Author does not hold any - short or long - position in Amazon) 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Nothing ugly about price-comparison shipping. It may not be metaphysically "fair" but, hey, life isn't fair.

  3. I think we are mixing concepts of success/failures, pretty/ ugly and right/wrong. For example.natural parasites have survived and thrived over billions of years. This success does not make them beautiful. They remain ugly.

    We actually believe that showrooming is so important to Amazon's parasitical model in some product categories that we may see the company invest some money in keeping the brick and mortar companies enough to keep them alive. Paralyzed but alive like a parasitic wasp does to

  4. Its hosts before it lays eggs in them.

  5. Wow. To say Amazon is not associated with design excellence is completely false. The Kindle succeeded largely because of its UI and remarkable design. What other device is read by so many people in so many different demographics?

    This article reads like a hack job by someone who has not even used the Amazon phone. How convenient that the question mark is chopped off of your headline postings on LinkedIn. Desperate for page views.

    Why is Amazons desire to get users to buy products a bad thing? That is what they do and why they have so many Prime members. This is just a built in wand from Amazon Fresh. This is why people love the company.

    Amazon might make a misstep or two on a new product launch but traditionally these items get resolved fairly quickly. They have built a customer base by anticipating what their customers want and ultimately they want convenience. I believe this phone will change the way people think about smart phones and what they can expect from them. I think it has more processing speed than my MacBook Air so I hope to see new features added soon. I will hold judgement until I can get one in my hands though - that seems like a reasonable way to review a product. This 'article' is just a bunch of summarizations followed by quick caveats.

    I did not know 'tilt' and 'swivel' were buzzwords...tmyk.


    1. the "misfire" was for the stock market reaction whereby it greeted the announcement by sharp drop in the price. Obviously, we can only tell about the market acceptance of the phone after the launch.

      If market share dominance was an argument for product design excellence, then Microsoft Windows will be considered a stellar product.

    2. And Amazon stock remains at an all time high.

    3. actually, you might not have noticed it but it fall 20% since it reached it's all time high in January (407 on Jan 21, 324 on June 20 the day after the phone was announced). And a growing number of media including Forbes magazine and CNBC's Jim Cramer that it's still astronomical for a company with 1% margin, and with the playing field becoming level with most states forcing amazon to collect taxes, decreasing tolerance for worker abuse etc.


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