Amazon launches Fire smartphone: Building a device for Prime

Amazon lines up its smartphone to integrate with its cloud services as well as Prime membership. The device is looking high end with its camera specs.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

SEATTLE — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos launched the Fire smartphone, the company's latest foray to engage Prime customers, sell you more stuff, and recruit developers to make the e-commerce giant the No. 3 mobile platform. The smartphone launch also was positioned as a front end to the customer relationship.

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What remains to be seen is whether the smartphone, which gives Amazon a small screen to integrate with your life, will be viewed as innovative or gimmicky. A key feature is dubbed Firefly, which recognizes objects around you and compiles them into a list you can act on. Think shopping, people.

The Fire device also adds 3D features to capture views and sense what vantage you are viewing the screen. "We call this dynamic perspective," said Bezos. 

AT&T will offer the Fire phone exclusively. Pre-orders start today with two-year contracts at $199 and under the AT&T Next one-year installment plan. AT&T has been a long-time Amazon partner on the Kindle 3G service. The Fire device ships July 25 and includes 12-months of Prime. Existing Prime subscribers get 12 months anyway.

firefly pricing

One thing is clear: Amazon isn't shy about its hardware ambitions. Think of the strategy as one that revolves around delivering e-commerce and content kiosks across multiple screens — TV, tablet and now smartphone. Bezos' hurdle: Use hardware to do things that are "a little different."

Credit: All images courtesy of James Martin, CNET

The event in Seattle was intimate with customers, a small-ish venue and a device that was outed via leaks, but largely remained a mystery in terms of actual hands-on time. Bezos' mom was in the audience too. Customers pitched themselves on video to get into the event. Naturally, Bezos walked in as soon as those customer presentations ended.

Building a phone for Prime members

To put Amazon's smartphone in the proper context, you need to know the master plan. Amazon wants to engage the customer base and have you renew Prime subscriptions.

Bezos said that the launch of Prime took off with video content, Kindle Owner's Lending Library and the Kindle Fire. "The real story underneath Prime is patience, persistence and attention to the smallest deals," said Bezos. "Prime isn't leaky. People use the service and use it a lot. And when it comes time to renew, they renew."

prime subs

"The mental model for Prime is one customer. We try and build a service for one customer. The consequence is that you can get millions," said Bezos.

Regarding hardware, Bezos said that same mental model applies. Amazon has been in the hardware business for a decade. The first Kindle met skepticism. For Bezos, Amazon's hardware adventures are all about engagement.

"The most important thing that we've done over the last 20 years is earn trust with customers," said Bezos. "We've worked hard to do that. You don't ask for it. There is a simple recipe for earning trust: Step one do hard things well. Step two repeat. You have to do this thousands of times over and over and over. If you do that customers notice."

Bezos said the plan was to build a phone for Prime members. "How would we be different?"

Tale of the tape

Amazon focused on outdoor use and one-hand usage with the Fire smartphone. The initial specs position it as a higher end device. 

Some specs:

  • 4.7 inch screen;
  • Ultra bright display;
  • 13 megapixel rear facing camera;
  • 2.2 GHz processor;
  • 2GB RAM;
  • Gorilla Glass 3 screen.

Bezos spent a lot of time on the camera and unlimited cloud storage on Amazon.

pictures on fire

Amazon's Fire phone is also built for what its customers do. Reading enhancements for the phone, customer support via a smartphone Mayday button and a feature called Firefly, which recognizes books, DVDs, QR codes, CDs, URLs, games and bar codes to name a few.

Firefly is essentially Shazam for everything. Not surprisingly, these things will be compiled into a history that can become a shopping list. There are actions for every item.

"Firefly can not only see, but listen as well," said Bezos. Third parties can also build actions into Firefly.

firefly image
firefly image 2

A few key points regarding Firefly:

  • It uses semantic boosting and machine learning.
  • It scrapes data for faster processing so it can recognize faster.
  • There's a dedicated button on the phone for Firefly. 
  • Third party developers can build on top of Firefly via an SDK. MyFitnessPal has built on top of Firefly already with image recognizers, databases and nutrition information.
firefly button
firefly sdk

3D: Gimmick or killer feature?

Bezos touted dynamic perspective for everything from mapping to lock screen images. The computer science behind the feature revolves around sensors that track the user's vantage point.

The images clearly look better than previous 3D effects on phone. Bezos walked through restaurant searches as well as every day usages where dynamic perspective comes in handy.

3D effect

Bezos also showed how tilts can enlarge images and scroll through. "As you move your head just a little the perspective changes," said Bezos.

Dynamic perspective is also used in Web surfing. "I just randomly chose a Washington Post article. I don't know why, but I like that publication," quipped Bezos, now owner of that newspaper.

3D effect1

Autoscrolling is another feature. "It's an easy one-handed gesture. It's a very robust gesture," said Bezos.

Amazon's 3D approach is applied throughout the phone including the app grid and user interface. Dynamic perspective is also key for gaming. 

How is it done? "We have to know where the user's head is all the time, in real time," said Bezos. "We started working on this four years ago." Bezos showed some early prototypes, including one that looked a bit like Google Glass. Computer vision "is super hard in the real world," said Bezos. 

Amazon spent a lot of time focusing on things like z-depth, choosing what heads mattered and developing algorithms that use four cameras to recognize people. 

"We got really good at tracking faces and finding heads in real time," said Bezos.

Amazon also launched a Dynamic Perspective SDK. 

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