Amazon announces perplexing Fire Phone, matters nothing for Apple and iPhone

Amazon has finally announced their long-rumored handset, the Fire Phone and... it's kind of perplexing. See Android Central's complete Amazon Fire Phone coverage. On the face of it, the Fire Phone looks like a high-end Android handset from a year or two ago with some whacky 3D stuff thrown in and some amazing services that's locked up in Amazon's all-too typical U.S. jail. So, what does it mean for Apple and the iPhone?

Nothing really.

Part of it has to do with the target audience — Americans on AT&T for whom Amazon Prime is a way of life. That's an incredibly niche audience compared to Apple shipping to hundreds of countries and carriers around the world, and offering the best services not only from Apple but from Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and everyone else of import.

Part has to do with the perplexing nature of the Fire Phone itself, which seems equal parts old and new, clever and silly, attractive and repulsive. I honestly don't know if I'd want one. I'll have to do some serious back-of-the-napkin math to figure it out, and that's unusual for me. And interesting.

And part has to do with the price being almost as high as an iPhone — $199/$650 on/off-contract but for 32GB instead of 16GB — for hardware that's outdated and special features whose value remains to be proven.

You've got a 720p display sitting on top of a Snapdragon 800 processor and Adreno 330 graphics chip. There's 2GB of RAM, which beats the iPhone on paper, but the iPhone is using a custom, purpose-built Apple A7 system-on-a-chip and runs Apple's own software, not something forked from Android.

The camera looks great. 13mp, f/2.0, with optical image stabilization. That's good glass, maybe even Nokia good, and they'll need it because, again, Amazon won't have something like the Apple A7's Image Signal Processor to do heavy on-device lifting. They could theoretically match Google's server-side awesomeness, but beyond unlimited photo and limited video storage, they haven't announced anything similar yet. There's a hardware button for quick camera access, which is nice.

There was also something about 4 front-facing cameras for advanced selfie-fication, but I wasn't at the event and Amazon doesn't mention the details on their Fire Phone product page so I'll have to wait before forming any thoughts on that.

But, lasers! The gist seems to be the front-facing cameras are primarily to support the dynamic perspective feature, which uses face tracking to create a faux super-parallax effect. As an interface the mechanic feels ill-considered and gimmicky but it's impossible to know for sure without trying it. Apple has floating, faux-3D effects starting in iOS 7 and even that caused vertigo and other motion reactions in a large enough percentage of users that off-toggles had to be added in iOS 7.0.3 and iOS 7.1. Hopefully Amazon learned from that and made a better system, but 3D in general has been nothing but a failure to date and making it a center piece for features is a huge challenge and huge risk. Best of luck with it. If nothing else, I'm eager to see it in action. (And won't be surprised if it goes back to flat with buttons fast.)

Firefly is a dedicated hardware button and service that's sort of like Google Goggles or some of the augmented reality stuff in the iOS App Store. The cynical view would be to call it the One-Click button attached to an image recognizer. The more altruistic view would be to call it an informational assistant. How it plays out in reality, we'll have to wait and see. Basically you hit it and what the phone sees it identifies, provides information about, and if you can buy it from Amazon, lets you buy it from Amazon. (There's an SDK for developers.

There's also the Mayday button, which looks to be great from a customer service perspective. Hit the button and Amazon promises a real, live, Turing-passing human being will appear on your phone and help you do whatever it is you need help to do. You can see them, they can't see you, but they can take over your phone and show you how it works, or even do stuff for you. That's kind of creepy from a privacy stand point — Amazon obviously has deep hooks into the phone — but really awesome from help stand point. Considering there aren't Amazon Retail Stores the way there are Apple Retail Store, it's a way to make sure people get the most out of the technology they buy, and good on Amazon for prioritizing it, and it's promised 15 second response time.

The Amazon Fire Phone runs Fire OS, which is a fork of Android, and that means it runs Android Apps. The Amazon Appstore Android apps to be specific. Amazon is offering 1,000 Amazon Coins (a $10 value) for apps, games, and in-app purchases for all new Fire Phone owners. But the idea of a world with "Amazon Coins" in it makes me want to close the browser and flashy thing myself. So, next time, lets just stick to cash, okay? That said, the one year of free Amazon Prime that's included (a $99 value) is a bonus.

The Fire Phone is, of course, like most of Amazon's products, amazingly U.S.-centric. Amazon operates as though the rest of the world barely exists and while that's probably okay for a company that really just wants a fancy, sticky front end for their U.S. (and handful of other) retail centers, it's not okay for a modern company making a modern phone, tablet, or any other device. For example, Amazon Video still only works if you have a U.S. credit card and are physically inside the U.S. In 2014. Appalling.

Amazon's horizontal lock-in is just as problematic as Apple's vertical lock-in but it's not perceived so. Until, of course, it's too late.

Neither of those are the biggest problem facing the Fire Phone however. The biggest problem is that, while it stacks up okay against the 2012 iPhone 5 and 2013 iPhone 5s, this is 2014. And the iPhone 6 — likely plural — are coming this fall.

Which is why I said at the beginning I don't see the Fire Phone mattering much, if at all, to an international Apple that's actually on fire right now. How about you?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.