Jeff Bezos spent a lot of time talking about the Amazon Fire phone yesterday. He walked the audience through different aspects of the device, talking about its hardware, its cameras, its 3D interface and so on. But he spent the most time on a feature called FireFly.
And that really gave the game away.
For you know, notwithstanding all the debate about the phone and the dissection of its hardware and software (why no Bluetooth 4.0, why no voice assistant, why no Google Play, et al), the stark fact is that Amazon has designed the Fire phone for one purpose and one purpose alone. It is NOT to win the smartphone wars (notwithstanding all the jibes at the iPhone). It is NOT to redefine Android. It is NOT to conquer the phone world.
Nay, it is to sell. And not sell phones, but goods across all segments. On Amazon.
Firefly might have been flaunted as a feature that would help you identify anything, but underlying it is the fact that it also lets you pretty much purchase anything from your phone as well. So you could in essence point your phone at a pair shoes you see, get them identified, specify your shoe size and place an order to get them delivered to your place. And of course, the order would be placed through…you guessed it, Amazon. All the talk of art, of music, of books… all of it boils down to one core proposition – “isn’t what you see amazing? Well, you can buy it off Amazon with just a tap of your finger.” The provision of a dedicated hardware button makes it easier to access – no scrolling through apps as you have to do to get to the Amazon app on iOS and Android.
There were two ways in which Bezos could have gone about this. Borrowing from his own range of devices, we will call them the Kindle approach and the Kindle Fire HDX approach. In the former, the Amazon phone would have been an uber affordable device with a single core feature – that of giving you access to Amazon’s store. In the latter, the phone would have been as good as any in the market, would come with an expensive price tag and while its core purpose would continue to be to push people to the store, this would be camouflaged by a stack of features that other phone owners would be jealous of. As we now know, the Kindle HDX plan has been followed.
The result is a phone that can rub shoulders with the best in the business on most feature fronts but comes with a totally controlled environment, whether it is in terms of interface or apps. Amazon has used Android but has taken a leaf out of Apple and Microsoft’s books – the interface is theirs and cannot be tinkered with easily and access to apps is also through Amazon. There will be some complaints about the price, but even the off-contract price of USD 650 price is sweetened by a year’s membership of Amazon Prime (worth about USD 99). The idea seems to have been to target an audience that wanted a ‘different phone’ (hence all the focus on the 3D interface and the flurry of cameras) as compared to the current Android army. Whether the exclusive deal with AT&T will work only time will tell, but Amazon seems to be targeting the upper price segment with its new Fire range of devices.
There will therefore be those who will analyse the Fire phone in terms of hardware and software, and talk about Bluetooth versions, thickness and the Lord alone knows what other technobabble. They are alas, barking up the wrong tree, and are getting distracted by Amazon’s spec smokescreen. The Fire phone’s spec sheet and interface are designed to grab attention (after all, why would you invest in a USD 650 phone unless it had good specs and something special), but its greatest strength is likely to be its seamless connectivity with the Amazon store. Remember Steve Jobs ordering a stack of coffees using the map application during an iPhone presentation? Well, that is the kind of stuff the Fire phone will have people doing, if it works as well as promised, and the more people see it happening, the more interest there will be in the device. And Amazon will market it well, take my word for it. I doubt Amazon is looking for massive volumes here – as in the case of the Fire, it is coming in as a different Android device tied in to a brand that many people trust and interact with every day. And unlike the Fire tablet which offered a similar (albeit far more understated) proposition, the Fire phone is something that is likely to be in a user’s hands far more often. This is Amazon pretending to join the smartphone race when what it actually wants to do is simply shop from it all the time!
Media guru Marshall McLuhan had famously remarked “the medium is the message.” The Fire phone is just that for Amazon. It is not a phone, but a medium to reach Amazon’s store. And its message is dead simple: SHOP.
The big question is: will people listen?
Update: Joy of Tech has a nice illustration on the subject!