As expected, online retailing giant Amazon.com announced its long awaited smart phone, dubbed Fire Phone, at a press event on Wednesday. Unexpectedly, however, the device doesn't appear to offer much advantage over the Android and iPhone market leaders, let alone Windows Phone. And it completely ignores Amazon's guiding principle of offering the best value for the buck.
"Fire Phone puts everything you love about Amazon in the palm of your hand," Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is credited with saying, "instant access to Amazon's vast content ecosystem and exclusive features like the Mayday button, ASAP, Second Screen, X-Ray, free unlimited photo storage, and more."
Turns out all of the predictions in What (We Think) We Know About Amazon's Smart Phone Entry were correct. The phone does offer an interesting 3D-like, face-tracking user experience that Amazon calls Dynamic Perspective. It's an Android-based design but of course doesn't offer any Google services or apps, and relies instead on Amazon's far more limited AppStore for Android. (Even Windows Phone offers more apps.)
There are a few nice touches. The devices comes with unlimited free backup of all photos taken with Fire Phone to Amazon's cloud servers, and it has what looks like a nice camera. And it comes with a premium, no tangle headset.
If the Fire Phone has a major flaw, it's that most of its touted features are a big advantage for Amazon, not the device's users. The user experience drives those users inexorably to Amazon products and services, in a way that is more bald-faced and unavoidable than the UI on competing phones. A feature called Firefly, which is triggered by a hardware button on the phone no less, identifies items in brick and mortar stores and then lets you buy them—with one click!—on Amazon.com: You'll be on Best Buy's most wanted list in no time.
Another big issue is the price. Many had expected Amazon.com to closely tie this device to its annual Prime subscription and provide carrier agnostic, no-contract pricing and a special deal on cellular access. But the Fire Phone is sold subsidized like other phones, and costs $200 to $400 with a two-year contract. Which is only available through—and locked to—AT&T Wireless. (You do get one year of Prime for free, a $99 value, when you buy the Fire Phone.)
The unsubsidized versions of the phones, still locked to AT&T, are $650 to $750. This is in a market where you can get an unsubsidized and unlocked Google Nexus 5 for just $350 to $400, and of course lower-end devices can be had for even less.
If you are interested in being locked in an Amazon world where you're always shopping or at least being sold something, you can preorder the Fire Phone now from the company's retail website. It will ship in late July, Amazon says. My suspicion is that few existing smart phone users will feel compelled to switch, but with millions of customers visiting its website every day, it's sure to find at least a small audience.