The Amazon Fire phone: It's what you asked for

We've said that we want to buy things on our phones, so Amazon has made a phone designed to be a better way to buy things.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos launches the company's new Fire phone. Image: James Martin/CNET

The launch of the Amazon Fire phone prompted a fair amount of mockery of the idea that you'd buy a $700 phone just to make it easier to buy more stuff, on Amazon, when you can already use the Amazon app on iOS and Android and even Windows Phone to do a lot of that.

But survey after survey has said that people are interested in shopping from their phones, or are already doing it.

Having seen some of those surveys in detail, they often blur the line between checking prices and reviews or actually buying things online, or between buying apps and music on your phone or buying your weekly shopping or a dishwasher on the small screen.

According to Arqiva's latest Wireless Nation Report, 49 percent of UK consumers have checked prices on their mobile device while in a store, 44 percent have researched products on their mobile device and 35 percent have looked at product reviews. In the US, nearly 40 percent of smartphone owners use a retail and shopping app at least once a month (360 View: Mobility and the App Economy) and an IDC study this January had one in five people looking up a cheaper price online and buying it while they were in a shop that had the same product and 70 percent saying they would use their phone to help their "shopping experience".

Half of the people Ovum asked last Thanksgiving didn't want to try mobile payments and the most popular commercial activity on the phone (just 35 percent of people in the survey) was actually checking your bank balance. But we also do most of our shopping on the phone early in the morning or late in the evening (Citrix Mobile Analytics Report February 2014 has 9am and 8pm as peak phone shopping times), so it's not all comparison shopping.

Yes, we still do more online shopping from a PC (86 percent worldwide, as of last Cyber Monday according to Ovum). In a comScore survey this month "online shoppers who use multiple devices said they prefer to shop on a desktop computer over mobile because larger and clearer images help them comparison shop".

But 20 percent of the people in the Ovum study said they shop online with their phone already (and only 14 percent with their tablet).

In every study, we're saying that we want to buy stuff on our phones. And we buy a lot of stuff on Amazon — not just because of Amazon Prime, which (in the US at least) gives you a range of benefits beyond just free postage, but because it's often cheaper.

Looking at prices last Christmas, if you wanted to buy a TV or a doll or an iPhone or a Breaking Bad DVD box set, you could pay 10-20 percent less by buying it from Amazon rather than in a shop.

According to IDC, US phone users visit Amazon on their phones more than any other shopping or retail site (and that's based on scanning people's phones rather than relying on their memory in a survey). Combine the two and in retrospect it's obvious that Amazon would launch a buying phone.

The reason more of the people in that Ovum study last year didn't shop on their phones? They don't think services are secure (49 percent) or they worry their personal data might be misused (47 percent). Presumably, they'll feel more comfortable about the security of shopping on Amazon through an Amazon phone (although the idea of telling Amazon everything about your shopping habits — even in stores where you only check the price on Amazon and go ahead and buy it from the store you're in — is a little disturbing for some).

The technology in the Fire phone is really all about shopping. The 3D view calculated by those six cameras? It's to make the products you're looking at on screen that bit more realistic. It doesn't matter for a memory card or a hard drive, but if you're shopping for clothes or a new mouse, the more clearly you can see it before you buy it, the less likely you are to return it once you get your hands on it.

The Fire phone has a Windows Phone-style dedicated camera button (just as Microsoft relaxes the requirement for a camera button to encourage more OEMs to come out with cheaper phones — that can be at least cheaper by the cost of one button), and it has a trick Microsoft missed.

Promising unlimited photo storage makes the Fire phone feel generous, but with the ever-decreasing cost of cloud storage (at least for providers who are already sucking up the cost of the servers, networks and electricity to run that storage) it won't cost Amazon very much. Plus, even the heaviest snappers won't take up that much space.

I take a lot of photos on my phone and since I started using Windows Phone, I've stored 10,000 images on OneDrive. They're 1MB or 2MB each — apart from the 38 megapixel images from the 1020, which are around 7MB each. It adds up to just under 17GB, so if I hadn't been a OneDrive user for so long that I get 25GB free, I'd have run out of space already, even with the 3GB I get free for having Windows Phone. But I expect I'm at the far end of the bell curve.

Making storage free for all the photos I take on my Windows Phone might actually encourage heavy users to buy more storage for other files, because you want everything in the same place. Amazon understands the value of getting you to come back, with free postage or ebooks or recommendations or a phone that makes it easier to buy stuff — because every time you come back, you might buy something.

As always, if you remember that Amazon is a logistics company that just happens to sell phone and tablets and books and toothpaste and clothes (and cat litter, running shoes, hard hats, car tyres, bicycles, mattresses, carpets, wine, baby food, bunches of flowers and just about everything else you can think of — including dental check-ups and brake servicing in some areas). What it does in technology makes more sense.

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