I've got a pretty good track record. I've made many over-the-top predictions, come up with ridiculous future scenarios, generated controversy by criticising something everyone loves, and have usually been fairly accurate with it all. But when I get it wrong, I really get it brilliantly wrong and end up with more egg on my face than most other tech analysts. This is one of those times. Peering through those yellow yolks on my face is an expression of total disappointment.
Starting with the yellow face
In 2010, I made my first prediction that the time was ripe for Amazon to come out with a smartphone and use it to leverage online shopping and consumption of movies, music and books. Didn't happen! In 2012, I went out on a limb and said it would come within the next six months and set the market on fire with fantastic specs, a jaw-dropping feature set and an industry-disrupting price point. Didn't happen! In 2013, I wrote about the Amazon phone as just around the corner in my top five things that will shake up the tech world. The only thing left shaking was me with my disappointment. Finally in June 2014, the much awaited, much hyped, much predicted Amazon Fire Phone finally became reality. Except it turned out to be much ado about nothing.
Jeff Bezos and Amazon play their game on a sublime level, much away from traditional business and conventional industry norms. Almost everything that they do in hardware or services has a single point purpose. To increase online sales at Amazon. Thus almost all their hardware products have been built with three things in mind. It must be a leader in its category, it must have built-in reasons for people to buy more media and products from Amazon and it must be priced so low that buying it is a no-brainer.
Amazon has always taken a loss leader approach, where they literally give away the product at a very low price and make money on the user buying stuff from Amazon to offset that loss, and in the long run, end up with super profits. They've done it with their e-book readers, they replicated it with their tablets and they played out the same strategy with their media streamer, the Fire TV. Exceptional products at exceptional prices! That the Fire Phone would have the same business strategy as well as feature sets was a given. Except this time, the given has been rudely taken away!
The phone in itself has nothing wrong with it. In fact, it's pretty good. This is a 4.7-inch screen phone with a 720p display, Fire OS 3.5 (Amazon's own custom OS sitting on top of Android), a quad-core 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB RAM, a 13MP rear camera with a 2.1MP front camera, and a 2400 mAh battery. All good, nothing spectacular.
Then come some of the features that sound awesome. The first is Dynamic Perspective, a different kind of 3D. Rather than having artificial and clunky pop-out images stare back at you, this uses tilt and angles to give you more info, menus and details behind images and objects. If you like a dress or a shirt, just tilt the phone a little to 'peer' behind for more info or turn the dress around to look at the back.
The phone uses four ultra-low power cameras to track your face and eyes, even in the dark. Then there's Firefly, a special button on the side of the phone. Click it whenever you have something on the phone or around you that you want to know more about. Clothes on a magazine cover, music in your vicinity, an article about wine, and the phone will give you detailed info, including a chance to either buy that or something similar off Amazon. Add to that Mayday, which connects you via video to an Amazon adviser or service person, ASAP which looks at your viewing behaviour and preloads videos for you from Amazon Prime, Cloud Drive that gives you unlimited cloud storage for your pictures and Prime Music that gives you free access to more than a million songs. Sounds quite 'amazon'ing - right? Nope, not even close.
Crash and Burn
First of all, the phone costs a bomb. It's as expensive as a Samsung Galaxy S5 or iPhone 5S. Don't be fooled by the $199 price, that's with a lock in with a service provider. The unlocked version will set you back $749 for a 64GB phone. Ridiculous, as it's higher than the competition with much poorer specs and features. From screen to processor to build to material to features - the Amazon Fire cannot match a Samsung, Apple, HTC or LG flagship phone. In fact, the specs are closer to a Google Nexus that sells for less than half that price unlocked. Thus, this is the first product that breaks from Amazons fantastic policy of exceptional product, exceptional price. Also, it's not a very good looking phone to boot.
Then there's the other problem that all Amazon tablets also face. The number of apps on Amazon's app store are woefully inadequate. Add to this the fact that the only wow technology is all about buying more stuff from Amazon's own marketplace. And to a great extent, it's all a little gimmicky as all this tilt and eye tracking has been tried and failed before. Thus this is a very expensive phone that you will purchase only as a device to help you purchase more things from Amazon. Not a very compelling advertisement.
The Amazon Fire Phone may just go down in history as a lesson to two men. Jeff Bezos; as an example of why moving away from a winning formula can have dire consequences. And me; as a illustration that too much egg on your face isn't a very pleasurable sensation.
(Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3)
From HT Brunch, June 29
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