Everyone has been wondering what Amazon would do when it finally got into the smartphone game, and now we can stop wondering — it’s the Fire Phone. Unimaginitive name aside, this is Amazon’s attempt to expand its custom Android build (called Fire OS) from tablets to phones, which keeps Amazon’s content and shopping experience in your pocket all day. The smartphone’s specs are high-end, but it’s the experience that matters most. The $200 on-contract price tag is a premium price point for a smartphone – does Amazon’s first foray into Android phones justify that price?
If you’ve never spent time with a Kindle Fire tablet, you might not even realize that Fire OS is a version of Android. There are still hints of the little green robot peeking through Amazon’s tough gunmetal gray Fire OS theme. However, one aspect of Android you won’t find on the Fire Phone is the part everyone associates with Android — there are no Google apps or services. Amazon is forking Android for each of its devices, usually grabbing one of the newer versions of Google’s software from the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) when the time comes to develop. The open source build of Android comes with none of Google’s framework built-in because those parts are proprietary. That’s fine, and maybe even preferable for Amazon’s purposes.
When you buy a Fire Phone, you get Amazon’s services in place of Google’s. That means no Chrome, Play Store, Google Play Music, Google Drive, or Gmail. Instead you get Silk Browser, Amazon Appstore, Cloud Player, Cloud Drive, and Amazon’s generic email client. Depending on how deeply embedded you are in Google’s ecosystem, that might not be the end of the world.
Since Amazon is using Android as the base of its platform, the apps in the Appstore are just Android apps with a few small tweaks for Amazon’s distribution system and DRM. However, just because developers can put their apps on Amazon doesn’t mean they will. That might be the biggest issue with the Fire Phone as a premium device — the Amazon Appstore can’t hold a candle to Google Play. The Appstore only has fifteen of the top twenty free Android apps and games, and just nine of twenty top paid apps and games.
Amazon is doing much better when it comes to other types of content. Fire OS has built-in support for Amazon’s video library, which you still can’t get on regular Android devices. There is also a vast selection of music with cloud storage. However, Google now has an excellent subscription music service in Play Music. If you want to read on a smartphone, which isn’t really ideal, the Kindle ecosystem built into the Fire Phone is far superior to Google Play Books.
Amazon spent a large part of its event talking about how its massive selection of products would tie into the Fire Phone via Amazon Firefly. This is a software feature that uses the camera to instantly ID products and link you to them on Amazon. It can also figure out music and video content for you. It’s undeniably neat, but you have to wonder how much use it will get. Similar apps and services already exist for Android, though in a more limited fashion. Will Firefly be a killer feature or just a gimmick? Time will tell.
There is no analog in Google’s Android for Amazon’s head-tracking “Dynamic Perspective” tech. The company is promising a more immersive shopping and gaming experience that lets you change the view perspective simply by moving your head. If it works, that’s a good thing. If not, you might wish Amazon had skipped the quartet of IR-sensitive cameras and kept the price lower. Mayday is also unique, and the ultimate mom-friendly feature. Tap this one button and you get instant live support for your Fire Phone.
Amazon is trying to get away from selling devices so cheaply that it eats all the profit, as it does with the Fire tablets. The Fire Phone is being sold in a very traditional way on AT&T with a two-year contract (it’s $650-750 without one). The retailer is probably making money on every device instead of just hoping it hooks more consumers of its content with a cheap device. The free year of Amazon Prime does sweeten the deal, but more capable devices like the Galaxy S5 and LG G3 are selling for the same up-front price. Amazon might be paddling upstream here.