Fire Phone Could Pave the Way for Amazon's Global Takeover

Jeff Bezos and Co. have built the world's first world-aware device.

Amazon has always been pretty easy to figure out.

With the Kindle family of e-readers, Amazon wanted to sell books. When the Kindle Fire tablet came out, the game plan was to increase its Prime member ranks and sell media. Fire TV continued that push, bringing its substantial digital catalogue into the living room. To accomplish its goals, Amazon deliberately kept prices low, even if it meant selling the devices at cost, to make them as enticing as possible to consumers.

Each new device made sense, and fit neatly into the narrative that Amazon wanted to dominate the online retail space and bring as many customers into its tent as possible. But perhaps we were missing the big picture.

Fire Phone is something of a different animal. On the surface, it might seem like just another vehicle for selling digital contentand that's certainly part of the plan herebut Amazon's first smartphone is more than a Kindle Fire that can fit in your pocket. Packed with proprietary, cutting-edge technologies and priced as a premium product, it completes the company's story, so to speak, but there's a bit of a twist at the end: Amazon wants to take over the world.

Pay to play

More than any other gadget, a smartphone is a commitment. It's the only device we carry with us wherever we go, and no matter if it's a ZTE Open or an iPhone 5s, most users aren't regularly switching handsets, even if they haven't signed a contract. It's a conscious, careful decision, so therefore it was widely assumed Amazon would release something more along the lines of the Moto G than the Galaxy S5, making a play for the same budget-conscious people who own Kindles.

But instead, Amazon went the premium route. When buyers walk into an AT&T store on July 25, Fire Phone will be stacked up against the Galaxies, iPhones, and Ones of the world, each products with established customer bases and strong ecosystems. It's not going to be an easy sell (even with a free year of Prime), but Amazon seems to be well prepared for the fight. The $649 off-contract price isn't a money grab--clearly Amazon wants to position its first phone as a high-end product, and it just might be interesting enough to pull it off.

Beauty on the inside

On first impression, Fire Phone isn't much to look at. Even if you're staring at Amazon's perfectly lit marketing shots, it comes across as a relatively unimpressive slab, a cheap knockoff with too much bezel and symmetrically distracting sensors. Compared to the all-metal One or the S5's brilliant screen, it doesn't exactly measure up, but then again, Amazon has never been hung up on aesthetics.

Fire Phone may be the ultimate function over form device. Read through the lengthy product page at Amazon.com and you won't find a single adjective praising its design. It's not that it's junky, but Amazon doesn't need people to admire the hardware like Apple or HTC does--every bit of its attention went into what it does. It's what's inside Fire Phone that counts.

Not since the original iPhone has there been a handset I've been so curious to see, and I doubt I'm alone. Even if the 3D screen ends up being a gimmick, it's one that people will want to experience for themselves, much more so than marquee features like Smart Scroll or Touch ID. But while an exclusive contract with AT&T will ensure a prime spot in stores, foot traffic alone won't help Amazon move millions of Fire Phones.

Fire Phone needs apps. More specifically, it needs developers to embrace its SDK and create games and utilities that take advantage of its unique technologies. Right off the bat, developers who embrace Amazon's cutting-edge features are bring offered up to $15,000 worth of Amazon Coins for their first three Fire Phone apps (which can be distributed as promotional codes). Amazon is betting big on Dynamic Perspective and Firefly, and if it can get top-notch developers to start building next-generation apps exclusively for Fire Phone, it'll be that much closer to global domination.

Burn notice

In a sense, Amazon has built the first world-aware device. It may be missing the artificial personality of Siri or Cortana, but Fire Phone has the potential to be plugged into its surroundings like no other handset. Tilt a map and you can see down an unfamiliar street. Point it at a statue, and it can tell you who made it. Hear a song and it can pull up lyrics and liner notes, and tell you if the artist is on tour.

Fire Phone isn't just another me-too gadget in Amazon's growing arsenal--it's a real opportunity to expand its reach far beyond retail. We already automatically think of Amazon whenever we want to buy something, but now it wants to be there when we're not spending, too. Fire Phone could illuminate the world around you far easier and more accurately than Wikipedia or Google Now, putting Amazon at the center of everything we do, not just shopping.

Of course, Fire Phone might not actually catch on enough to make that reality, but what's inside it certainly could. Surely Firefly and Dynamic Perspective will make their way into the next Kindle Fire tablets, but who's to say there won't be a Firefly app in the App Store or on Google Play next year? Or what about a Samsung Galaxy S7 with Dynamic Perspective? By putting a significant value on Fire Phone's features and not the phone itself, Amazon is hedging its bet somewhat, using the handset as a showcase and opening the door for future licensing and development if it's a flop.

Hardware has never been Amazon's game, and Fire Phone doesn't change that. But it is a new tact: With the possible exception of Mayday, Amazon hasn't used proprietary technology in its products, but Fire Phone isn't a catch-up device out to grab whatever smartphone market share is left over by Apple or Samsung.

It's a way to scan, see, and sell the world through Amazon's eyes.

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