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Can Amazon Ignite a Saturated Smartphone Market with the Fire Phone?

The dust has settled on the initial hype around the Amazon Fire Phone launch of a few weeks ago. This gives us a chance to sort through the pundits' responses to what promises to be at the very least a novel entrant into the smartphone landscape and at the most a complete disruption to the incumbent battle between Samsung and Apple. Amazon has historically taken a different approach to hardware than others in the market. A services company at its heart, Amazon initially shocked the market by becoming a hardware manufacturer via the release of the original Kindle.

Although gadget experts made a big deal of the technology included in early Kindle models, Amazon was keenly focused on the user experience and had designed the Kindle so that the content, not the tech, was front and center. At some level, in fact, the Kindle out-Apple'd Apple, focusing just on reading the printed word...no movies, no music, just books. Amazon held off introducing color tablets until they could offer a disruption enabled by technology innovation but delivered transparently to the consumer. The Fire series' low prices, Silk browser, and Amazon Prime Videos gave consumers a reason to buy into the growing Fire ecosystem even if they already had competing tablets. The latest generation Fire HDX even integrated Mayday customer support into the device to create an even more sticky user experience.

The Fire Phone extends this laser focus on experience innovation built on technology advanced enough to be transparent to users. At a time when iPhone launches include an abundance of engineering banter, Amazon rolled out the Fire Phone with Dynamic Perspectives, Firefly Search and Mobile Mayday marketing monikers, absent any fanfare over the bits and bytes that went into making these features possible. The Fire Phone employs an impressive level of vision processing technology. This "Cadillac" of practical computer vision, in development for more than four years (longer than that of Apple's original touchscreen technology), makes the Moto X's always-on voice recognition seem pedestrian.

It's unclear which came first; Dynamic Perspectives, Firefly Search, or Tilt Navigation. But once the investment was made to include the additional cameras and battery capacity to support at least one of these features, the others became "simple" to further add to the mix. The question is, though which of these vision-enabled user interface innovations will actually "stick"? We know from looking at the adoption of Siri on iPhones that there was an initial burst of interest, but that user complaints inevitably began to roll in. Eventually (and faster than you might expect), mentions of Siri faded from most online discussions of iPhones. Will Firefly become the way all search is done? Can one handed-gestures become similarly mainstream? And will Dynamic Perspective become the biggest gaming innovation since Flappy Bird? We'll know more when the handset finally becomes available to consumers on July 25. In the interim, here are a few bets on which of Amazon's vision bets will win over the hearts and minds of consumers.

Let's start with the new vision-enabled gestural interface. Ever since Steve Jobs captured the world's attention by showing pinch-and-flick gestures on the iPhone, both Apple and other cellphone manufacturers have raced to find other interface gestures that would drive the same level of engagement. Samsung had a handset, for example, that used accelerometers to allow users to sketch letters in the air as a way to send out texts. And both BlackBerry and Microsoft used touch gestures swiping from the edges of the screen to add new dimensions of control (and for some users, confusion) to their handsets. Amazon's use of vision-enabled gestures offers a new approach, more robust than accelerometer-based schemes and with one-handed use benefits over traditional touch-based gestures.

The Fire Phone's one-handed gestures are also independent of screen size, meaning that users don't have to reach thumbs across the ever-increasing touchscreen real estate that consumers are demanding. While the learning curve for new gestures can be high, Amazon has done a good job of teaching users how these gestures can ease the control of common tasks. One concern, however, is the use of vision-based gestures to enable scrolling. Other attempts to improve scrolling have used accelerometers but were "twitchy," frequently causing users to over-control the scrolling action. Vision-based scrolling could fix these issues as long as Amazon effectively "tunes" its responsiveness.

Dynamic Perspectives is a novel homescreen approach whose shift in 3D rendering is designed to (among other things) enable significant innovation in the gaming space. Amazon's version of the Android App store is currently missing key titles such as Instagram. After observing BlackBerry's failure to cultivate sufficient apps to attract and retain mainstream consumers, Amazon needed a unique reason to draw developers to the growing portfolio of Kindle Fire products. Dynamic Perspectives could be just what Amazon needs in this regard. The animated homescreens are the perfect invitation to introduce Fire users to a new way of navigating virtual spaces. With the SDK already available, we will soon be able to see whether this feature brings new life to Amazon's App Store.

Firefly Search is Amazon's first salvo in the search wars already being fought by companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. While Google has had visual search capabilities for a while now, Firefly Search leverages Amazon's broad product catalog, under the assumption that many Fire Phone users will be searching for something that they were interested in eventually purchasing. Amazon's planned discard of Google for search on the Fire Phone is reminiscent of previous disruption attempts by Apple, such as the company's recently announced integration of web search into Spotlight.

If Amazon and Apple are successful in pushing Google to the side,  they can route consumers directly from interest to purchase, cutting Google out of ad revenues and increasing the chance of Amazon or Apple getting purchase revenue instead. It remains to be seen, however, whether consumers will "take a shine" to using Firefly Search. Surely taking a snapshot of the object of consumer desire is easier than trying to find the right words to author a search. If Firefly Search is successful, Amazon will intercept more than just Google searches, thereby increasing retail pressure on Apple, Walmart, Best Buy and others.

Amazon has a habit of investing ahead of the market in areas that cause Wall Street skeptics to scratch their collective heads. The Fire Phone is just the latest example of Amazon, often noted for doing its homework years before it was due, releasing another sleeper hit onto an unsuspecting market. The hat trick of vision-enabled user interface features, Firefly Search, Dynamic Perspectives, and gestures will help the Fire Phone score many converts in the smartphone battle for hearts and wallets. Amazon's long-term investment and calculated bet in pushing vision technologies with the Fire Phone is set to trump Samsung's more muted investment in the Galaxy handsets, which essentially use vision only to pause Netflix videos. Initial reviews are lukewarm; we'll know more by the end of July, after the Fire Phone gets into customers' hands.


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