techflash
TechFlashes are rapid reactions to key technology shifts from the leads of The Futures Company’s US technology and media practice, Jeff Yang and Andrew Hawn.
Jeff Yang and Andrew Hawn writes: In front of a rapt crowd of 300 hand-picked journalists, bloggers, and Amazon fans, Jeff Bezos unveiled the Amazon Fire Phone. It is the latest addition to the e-commerce titan’s portfolio of products designed to make shopping more frictionless and shoppers more loyal. The Fire Phone joins the original Kindle and the Kindle Fire Tablet (now in its third generation) as physical devices branded and manufactured by Amazon. The original Kindle reinvented publishing, essentially launching the e-book era; meanwhile, the Fire Tablet has been a middling success at best, moving about 6 million units during the past holiday season. (By contrast, Apple sold over 20 million iPads and Samsung over 10 million assorted Galaxy tablets ).So what are we to make of the Fire Phone?Physically, it is almost indistinguishable from most of its Apple, Android and Windows rivals — a sleek black slab with a 4.7 inch screen. Its performance should be snappy, given its 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor and 2GB of RAM. It comes with 32GB of memory for $199 and 64GB for $299, with a two-year AT&T contract, its exclusive provider. At least for now there’s a free one-year Amazon Prime subscription, worth $99. Quite surprisingly Amazon under-promoted this in its unveiling of the device.
fire phone

The illusion of depth

For consumers, the funkiest aspect of the phone and the one that might offer the most immediate “wow factor” is  Dynamic Perspective. This gives the illusion of depth to images by rotating them as the phone is tilted — something accomplished by the Fire Phone’s innovative face-tracking system, which uses four front-facing cameras. Since there’s a fifth front-facing camera for video chatting and the 13-megapixel rear camera, means that the phone has six image-capturing sensors — wow. Is there really a use-case for this?
Well, Dynamic Perspective allows “layered” information to be exposed through tilting, so mapping and location-based systems should benefit (though the question is how much more useful this will be compared to existing tools like Android Compass, Layar or the all-but-forgotten Yelp Monocle). The new interface also offers some promise for virtual product examination and demo, but it’s impossible to tell without seeing it in full effect whether it’s more “gimmick” or “gimme.”
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Ultimately, the most interesting innovation opportunity might be in gaming (there’s an SDK that allows developers to build the 3D effect into their own apps — though devs haven’t exactly lined up to make dedicated games for the Fire TV or Fire Tablet). For now at least, it’s primarily a novelty. But it’s not wrong to say that this system alone makes the Fire Phone the first mass-appeal mobile device that offers a fundamentally new user experience since the original iPhone, which mainstreamed the touchscreen interface.

 

Showrooming

The phone’s real innovation may lie in another feature: Firefly, which allows users to snap pictures of real-world products and be instantly taken to an Amazon product page to purchase that product — presumably at a lower price. It’s not quite “zero-click” buying (you still have to consummate the transaction on the site. But if  “showrooming” was a warning shot across the bow for bricks and mortar retailers, this feature could prove to be a full-on torpedo. Will it catch on with consumers? Time will tell. And if it does, the fact is, there’s little that prevents Amazon from taking Firefly to competing phones as a standalone app as well. That could mean major hurt for traditional retail players.

We do really like Amazon’s Mayday service, already available on Fire Tablets, which brings near-instant, one-click connection to a technical support agent who can answer questions or help with problems for free. That’s something against which few competitors can compete — given the need for huge standing call teams to support the service.

 

Intimate information

But the real issue with the Fire Phone may well be Amazon’s increasingly broad and tight grip on very intimate consumer information —  the most intimate data available, which is to say, what, when, and for whom we are willing to spend actual money.  Real transaction data is hugely more valuable than, say, what we search for or click on on the Internet, and harder to come by. Amazon, with 250 million customers, has access to perhaps the biggest supply of such data in the world. With the Fire Phone, they’ll be able to add more layers to this purchase cycle data, increasingly gathering information on the context of purchasing, which is to say, the “why” in why people buy. At the very least, Amazon’s ownership of a proprietary mobile platform could disrupt the fast-growing mobile advertising space. But setting up a potentially more powerful and more creepy set of opportunities, by owning the “whole consumer widget” — the user experience, the “metal,” the software and the relationship — Amazon will have the ability to insert itself into any point on the chain between discovery and ultimate purchase. Interestingly, the one thing that the Fire Phone doesn’t seek to own, at least not yet, is the consumer’s virtual wallet. It seemed like a sure thing that the company would try to extend its Amazon Payments framework to mobile via the Fire Phone.

Will consumers feel comfortable giving Amazon such immense power over their decision making journeys? Time will tell. But Amazon is intent on pushing the envelope on gathering intimate data and erasing boundaries that protect consumer privacy. The question is where or whether the consumer will start to push back.

Fire Phone image courtesy of Amazon. If you want to dive deeper into this topic or other critical issues in technology, media and entertainment? Reach out to The Futures Company’s consumer technology & digital platforms knowledge lead Jeff Yang or media, content & entertainment knowledge lead Andrew Hawn.

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