Amazon adds Fire Phone to its basket

Last updated 11:15 19/06/2014

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Amazon has introduced a new smartphone that seeks to help consumers locate and purchase products and services from the world's largest e-commerce company.

The Fire phone comes with audio and object recognition technology, known as Firefly, to guide users to Amazon's stores. Just snap a photo of a book or listen to a song, for instance, and Firefly will present more information and a way to buy it.

The new device fits with Amazon's broader aim to create a more efficient shopping experience while steering more consumers to its retail products.

"It goes back to the mission of Amazon, which is to sell you stuff," said Ramon Llamas of the research firm IDC. "It reduces the number of steps it takes to buy things on the phone."

Fire also has the ability to render 3-D images on its 4.7-inch screen. The image shifts based on the angle you're viewing it. Four infrared cameras on the front are used to tell where the viewer's head is.

The device also comes with earbuds designed to be tangle-free.

Beyond that, the Fire phone doesn't differ much from other smartphones on the market. The screen is smaller than leading Android phones. Although CEO Jeff Bezos calls the Fire's size ideal for one-handed use, many consumers have turned to bigger phones to watch video and consume other content.

Persuading consumers to buy the Fire over an iPhone or Samsung phone will be tough, analysts say, particularly because Amazon isn't offering price breaks the way it has with Kindle tablets. And sophisticated technology such as 3-D will appeal primarily to early adopters of technology.

"The technology's cool, but consumers don't buy technology," said Julie Ask, an analyst at Forrester Research. "We buy solutions. We buy services. We pay for things that make our lives easier."

Charles Golvin, founder of Abelian Research, believes the phone will appeal mostly to people who already use Amazon services heavily.

"Any loyalist of iPhones or Google is going to have to judge whether there's enough value in what Amazon is offering with Fire to make the transition," he said.

Samsung and Apple dominate worldwide smartphone sales with a combined 46 per cent share, according to IDC. And in the US, Apple leads with more than 37 per cent, with Samsung at nearly 29 per cent.

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Amazon could potentially succeed even if it doesn't steal market share from the top phone makers.

Michael Scanlon, managing director with John Hancock Asset Management, said success or failure will be measured by whether Amazon can increase loyalty among its Amazon Prime members and get them to boost purchases.

Amazon is giving Fire owners a free year of membership, which normally costs US$99. Prime offers free two-day shipping, encouraging impulse purchases. It also offers free access to some movies, TV shows, music and books and could encourage consumers to buy additional content, once they are used to the offerings.

Meanwhile, Firefly could encourage more purchases. The feature will also let you snap bar codes, phone numbers and more. It can even direct you to facts and data, such as a Wikipedia entry with information about a painting you snapped.

Ask said Amazon could learn more about how people use phones and design future services based on that knowledge.

The phone will be available July 25 in the US. No announcement has been made to its availability outside of North America.

Prices are comparable to other leading high-end phones, but the Fire will have double the storage. It will cost US$200 (NZ$229) for a base model with 32 gigabytes and US$300 for 64 gigabytes. Both require two-year service contracts. Without contracts, they will cost $650 and $750.

Analysts believe it could take years to tell whether Amazon is successful. Bill Menezes, a research analyst at Gartner, said it took Amazon a few tries before coming out with a tablet that rivals Apple's iPads on both price and technology.

For now, he said, the Fire doesn't offer much that isn't available elsewhere.

Many of the Fire's apps, including music and books, are available on other devices already. The exception is the app for Amazon's video services, which isn't available for Android.

Beyond the four infrared cameras to render the 3-D images, there's a regular 2-megapixel front camera for selfies and a 13-megapixel rear one for regular shots - both standard for phones.

Amazon is offering unlimited free storage of photos on its Cloud Drive service. Google already offers this for Android phones, though at lower resolution for the free storage.

The Fire phone also shares many characteristics found in other Amazon devices. For instance, the phone will offer supplemental content about movies and TV shows through a feature called X-Ray. And there's a Mayday button for live tech support.

Here's a look at the new phone:

SPECS AND FEATURES

❏ With a new Firefly feature, snap a photo of a book title, and it'll show you where to buy it. Listen to a song playing in the background, and it'll direct you to that tune on Amazon. It can even direct you to knowledge, such as pulling up a Wikipedia entry on a painting you snapped. The feature will also let you snap bar codes, phone numbers and more.

❏ The phone is smaller than leading Android phone, but larger than Apple's iPhone. CEO Jeff Bezos calls the screen, measuring 4.7 inches diagonally, ideal for one-handed use.

❏ Bezos touts the camera on the new phone. He says it has image stabilisation to counteract shaking as people take shots. Amazon is offering unlimited free storage on its Cloud Drive service.

❏ The phone will come with earbuds that have flat cords and magnets to clasp them together, so tangled cords will be history.

❏ Bezos says images are typically flat - and Amazon wants to change that. You can rotate the phone around and get a different view depending on your angle of vision. He says the phone is basically redrawing the image 60 times per second. Bezos calls this "dynamic perspective."

❏ To make that happen, the phone has four front-facing infrared cameras to tell where your head is, even if your fingers happen to cover two of them.

❏ There's an auto-scroll feature that lets you scroll down by tilting the phone. Samsung's Galaxy phones have that, too.

❏ Amazon's Kindle tablets run a highly modified version of Google's Android system, and it's likely an Amazon phone would do the same. That means apps for the phone would be limited to what's available through Amazon's own app store. The store has grown to include more than 240,000 apps, but there's much more for Android and Apple devices.

AVAILABILITY

❏ AT&T will be the exclusive carrier for the new phone in North America. It's a similar approach to what Apple took when it unveiled its first iPhone in 2007.

❏ The phone will be available July 25. People can start ordering them Wednesday at US$200 for a base model with 32 gigabytes and US$300 for 64 gigabytes. Both require two-year service contracts.

❏ The phone comes with 12 months of Prime membership, which is normally US$99 a year. Existing Prime members will get their term extended.

NOT A FIRST

❏ Facebook once tried to release a phone tied to its services. The HTC First, released in April 2013, came with Facebook's Home software, which takes over the phone's front screen to present status updates, messages and other content. Both the phone and the software flopped.

❏ Google also has its own phones under the Nexus brand, mostly to showcase its Android operating system. Google makes Android available for free for any phone manufacturer to use and modify. That makes it difficult to know what's really Android and what's a modification.

PAST FORAYS INTO GADGETS

❏ Amazon's first gadget was a Kindle e-reader, released in 2007. Although there are plenty of devices that do more, many people still prefer stand-alone e-book readers because they typically have better screens for reading in direct sunlight and don't have distractions such as Facebook and email.

❏ The company started making Kindle Fire tablets in 2011. The latest models, HDX, are notable for a Mayday help button that accesses live tech support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You see the representatives in a video box, but they can only hear you and see what's on your screen. They can also help guide you by placing orange markers on your screen or taking control of your device completely.

❏ In April, Amazon released its Fire TV streaming devices. What sets it apart from rival gadgets is a voice search feature that lets you speak the title, actor, director or genre into your remote to get matching content on the TV.

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