A storefront in every pocket

So here’s an enigma. Amazon released a new phone last week: the Amazon Fire Phone. Jeff Bezos’ demo—and all the marketing surrounding the launch—made a lot of noise about a bunch of attention-seeking but largely useless features.

Perhaps the most gimmicky is “Dynamic Perspective.” If you’ve seen a Nintendo 3DS, you’ll recognise the trick: use head tracking to fake a parallax perspective effect on a 2D screen, so for one viewer at a time, items on the screen look like they’re three dimensional. The Fire Phone uses four ‘cameras’ on its front to do the tracking, and the marketing video is full of ridiculous clips of people twisting and turning their phones to ‘peek’ round buildings in a mapping app or oggle the back-side of the icons in their launcher.

Dynamic Perspective is enabled in a handful of apps, and mostly to a superficial degree. In the worst cases, useful information is hidden behind on-screen elements, when it could just as easily be made visible in the first place. The same problem appears elsewhere on the Fire Phone, where mystery-meat gestures are required to open secondary panels hidden to the left and right of the screen.

The other big-hitting feature is Firefly, which, again, will be familiar to anyone who’s used either the Google Goggles app, or Amazon’s own barcode scanner app. Hold down the Fire Phone’s camera button for a bit longer than normal, and out swishes a cloud of glowing fireflies (very cute) which flit around the screen, converging on whichever items they can recognise. Once an item’s been recognised, there’s a plugin system that, theoretically, lets apps define custom things to do with the newfound item. But right now, pretty much the only action for most things is “Buy on Amazon.”

Now, most reviewers have, rightly, spent a great deal of time slating the gimmicks. Many have complained about things that’ll obviously get fixed in the log run.

Yes, Firefly recognition is rubbish right now, so was Apple Maps when it first launched. Heard anybody complaining about it recently? There you go. And yes, the phone’s US-only and AT&T-only (remind you of anything?) – but given time, that’ll obviously change.

These are all cheap shots. What about the phone itself?

“It’s heavy, but not really. Big, but not really. It has a 4.7 inch, 720p display that’s not anything special but certainly gets the job done. It has three speakers so you always get stereo sound, and about a day and a half of battery life. It’s all good enough without ever standing out. It’s just— fine.” (Pearce, The Verge)

Could my grandmother use it?

When a new technology comes out, it’s often worth asking “could my grandmother use this?” And by “grandmother” I really mean just anybody outside of tech bubbles like San Francisco and Shoreditch.

New gadgets and technologies get a lot of press from geeks, but anything truly popular has been made so by ‘grandmothers’ – from toasters and washing machines to iPods and Oyster cards. Grandmothers don’t require exquisite design, they just need something that cuts the crap and does its job without fuss.

Does the Amazon Fire Phone pass the grandmother test?

Well, with dynamic perspective it gets off to a bad start. But then, it’s a marketing gimmick, so we should expect that. The bizarre hidden tilting gestures will also, no doubt, confuse most users.

But we’d be wrong to dismiss the Amazon Fire Phone off-hand (especially for software gimmicks that, I have no doubt, users will be able to selectively disable – if they can’t already).

Compare the rest of the Fire Phone to most other smartphones on the market, and bits of it actually start making sense. The screen is spacious, but small enough to be easily held in a single hand. The resolution might not be eye-bleedingly high, but why does it need to be? The icons are nice and big, with android-style shapes, so they’re easy to differentiate. It has good viewing angles, but nothing special, and a nice bright backlight.

The headphones are pretty neat.1 The earbuds are slightly magnetic, meaning they automatically clip together when you put them in your bag or pocket, drastically reducing cable tangles. And the bottom half of the cable is flat, rather than round, so the bit that doesn’t need to flex around your neck can be strong and, again, tangle resistant.

I have no idea whether the fictional grandmother segment uses headphones. But here’s something they’d love: “Mayday.” Press one icon on the homescreen, and within 20 seconds you’re connected to a remote Amazon assistant who can hear you, speak to you, see your screen, and even draw on it if you need pointers. Speaking as someone who’s had to field their fair share of parental support calls, this thing sounds like a god-send. It’s a one-stop shop for customer support. Who needs a manual, or even a Google search, when you can get any question about your phone answered by a smiley orange-shirted chap in Amazon HQ?

“When I dug beneath the gimmicks, I found something better than 3-D heroics. The Fire Phone is uncommonly friendly and easy to use.” (Manjoo, New York Times)

Amazon’s killer app: the storefront

So the hardware’s as good as the best Android phones, and software tricks like Mayday make using the phone ultra unintimidating. Which is ace. But what’s clever is how Amazon’s pulling an Apple.

Apple changed the music industry when it brought all the major recording labels under one roof in the early 2000s and, in the face of rampant music piracy, made it simpler and quicker to buy a track via iTunes (or, later, your iPhone or iPad) than any other way. Apple got you into the ecosystem, and once people were there, they kept spending.2

If the Fire Phone—or its successors—get popular, Amazon could pull an Apple… on a huge scale.

Apple pretty much had music, movies, and TV shows in the bag. Amazon has, everything. Have you been there recently? They’ve got clothes and electronics, groceries and homewares, sports equipment, motorcycles, garden plants, MP3s, movies, books, toys… Amazon is grandmother friendly. If it weren’t for the hassle of getting an internet connection, messing with a router, a computer, a web browser, software updates—bah!—If it weren’t for all the crap around the Amazon experience, Amazon itself would be the de-facto way we all bought pretty much everything we ever needed.

So that’s where the Fire Phone comes in. If you have to wait until you’re next at your computer to order something, Amazon knows they’ve lost a sale. They need to put the store in your pocket (or handbag, I guess, if we’re still talking grandmothers). And that’s what the Fire Phone’s really doing.

After running down some of the Fire Phone’s UI inconsistencies, one reviewer noted: “The only thing consistently straight forward about the Fire Phone is how easy it is to get things from Amazon.” As if to ram its point home, Amazon gives you a year of free next-day delivery with the Fire Phone, in the form of Amazon Prime. See something, click a single button, it’s on your doormat less than 24 hours later. It’s exciting and frightening in equal measure.3

If Amazon pulls out its finger, it could slowly and quietly become the de-facto supplier of smartphones that just work. Nothing flashy, nothing fashionable. The housewives’ favourite. Or maybe the grandmother’s favourite. It would be a brave play, but I’m sure Amazon thinks it can pull it off.

It just needs to man up and stop the gimmickry.

  1. I’m such a sucker for well designed headphones

  2. Apple’s only now starting to lose ground to streaming services like Spotify and Netflix, which cleverly realised kids these days don’t want to own music of movies any more, they just want to rent them. But Apple doesn’t care – it’s still the market leader, and it famously never cared about software or content anyway, it’s all about the hardware. 

  3. Especially frightening when you factor in Amazon’s semi-serious investigations into Skynet-esque drone delivery methods.