Does Amazon need a smartphone to win the smart home battle?

Another run at building a smartphone could help Amazon cement its position.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Alexa wants to runs the smart home - should she be on your phone, too?

Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

The European Commission's antitrust complaint against Google, over how it used Android to strengthen the dominance of its search engine, also shed some light on Amazon's thwarted plan to persuade manufacturers to make devices using its own version of Android, Fire OS.

One of the EC's complaints against Google concerned how it prevented device manufacturers from using any alternative version of Android that were not approved by Google -- so-called Android forks.

According to the EC, in order to be able to pre-install Google's apps, including the Play Store and Google Search on their devices, manufacturers had to commit not to develop or sell even any device running on an Android fork.

The EC said that this reduced the opportunity for devices running on Android forks to be developed and sold. "For example, the Commission has found evidence that Google's conduct prevented a number of large manufacturers from developing and selling devices based on Amazon's Android fork called 'Fire OS'."

European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, provided more detail, and said that in 2012 and 2013, Amazon tried to license Fire OS to device manufacturers.

"It wanted to cooperate with manufacturers to increase its chances of commercial success. And manufacturers were interested. But, due to Google's restrictions, manufacturers could not launch Fire OS on even a single device. They would have lost the right to sell any Android phones with key Google apps. Nowadays, very few devices run on Fire OS - namely, only those manufactured by Amazon itself," she said.

It's not clear whether Amazon was trying to persuade manufacturers to make Fire OS tablets or smartphones or something else, but in 2014 Amazon then launched its own smartphone, the Fire Phone, running on Fire OS.

One of the selling points of the phone was something called 'Dynamic Perspective' which made some apps appear 3D, plus Firefly which allowed users to identify objects and then potentially buy them from Amazon. However, the phone was not a success and Amazon stopped selling it a year later.

Amazon didn't respond to a request for comment from ZDNet about its Fire OS plans; Google has said it will appeal the giant fine imposed by the EC, and its CEO Sundar Pichai said that the Commission's Android decision "ignores the new breadth of choice and clear evidence about how people use their phones today".

Fire OS hasn't gone away; Fire OS continues to be used on Amazon's tablets, its Kindle e-readers and Fire TV stick. According to IDC, Amazon's Fire OS based tablets accounted for about 10 percent of the overall market in 2017.

Image: IDC

Perhaps more importantly another Amazon product, launched a little bit later in 2014 than the Fire Phone but which also used Fire OS proved to be a much bigger success -- the Amazon Echo.

That has given Amazon a very strong position as the hub of the smart home and made its Alexa digital assistant the one to beat.

But so much for history: now the market has switched, and now the smartphone is a mature and increasingly saturated market, does Amazon still need a smartphone?

Maybe; while there is an Alexa app for Android and iOS, a smartphone that had the Alexa service running native as its core digital assistant could be a interesting option for people who've gone all-Amazon on the home front already.

While Siri and Google Assistant have been around a while neither have especially captured the imagination.

I think there's still room for Alexa on a phone to connect up the experience inside the home and outside of it (and my colleague Jason Perlow recently said something similar) but whether Amazon will decide to use Fire OS to rekindle its smartphone ambitions remains to be seen.

More on the smart home

Editorial standards