Amazon Hopes to Set Fire to Mobile Market with First-Ever Smartphone

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By year’s end, there will be 1.75 billion smartphone users on the planet, most of whom will have a Samsung or Apple device in hand. Amazon, however, is looking to turn the tide with its first-ever entry into the smartphone market.

At a press event today in Seattle, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced Fire, the e-commerce giant’s first phone—and a pretty nifty one at that. Branded in keeping with its device naming strategy, the 4.7-inch Fire Phone will be available exclusively in the US on AT&T’s network next month.

It boasts the expected high-pixel camera and ample storage (with an assist from Amazon’s cloud), but Bezos detailed two new functions that will separate the brand from the pack.

Amazon Fire Phone will feature a new service dubbed “Firefly” that can recognize printed names, numbers, barcodes and even works of art in a function that will allow consumers to scan a product, and then order it directly from Amazon. The function can identity music and add it to a playlist, read an email address on a business card and even read wine labels thanks to a partnership with Vivino.

The Firefly feature, which has a dedicated button on the phone, is similar to Amazon’s new Dash grocery service and its Price Check app.[more]

The other breakthrough feature on the device is Dynamic Perspective, a functionality that uses four front-facing, low-power cameras to track the location and distance of a users’ face in order to adjust how the screen appears—even in the dark.

The resulting 3D screen effect (similar to the iPhone’s dizzying “motion parallax,” as the WSJ live-blog notes) allows for a more “immersive experience,” including one-handed gestures like “auto-scroll, tilt, swivel and peek,” according to Amazon’s Fire Phone press release.

The 3D effect “is like a hologram,” the Wall Street Journal commented, and “images appear to float in front of, and behind other images on the screen.” The phone also includes Mayday, the live video customer helpline that Amazon introduced on its latest Kindle Fire.

In development for four years, the Fire phone may not be the last bit of hardware we see from Amazon.

After launching its Dash device and Fire TV—which works seamlessly with Fire phone—earlier this year, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that groups at its secretive Lab126 R&D unit are working on a “device that projects a computer image onto any surface … A second is developing a wireless speaker that responds to voice commands.”

Amazon isn’t the first non-mobile company to dabble in branded smartphones and mobile services. It may, however, thanks to Amazon’s reach and major marketing support from US launch partner AT&T, be one of the first to succeed in doing so after branded MVNO efforts by Facebook, ESPN and Disney all crashed and burned. 

To sweeten the deal, Amazon is launching the Fire with a free 12-month subscription to its much-lauded Amazon Prime service. The 32G version of the Fire will cost $199.99 with a new two-year contract, and will ship July 25. (Carriers in the UK and other markets are still to be announced.)

That’s not it for major mobile announcements today in Seattle, where T-Mobile is readying its Un-carrier event (which it was forced to move to from Los Angeles in order for the tech/mobile press corps to cover it). It’s widely rumored that T-Mobile may announce a merger with Sprint, but with John Legere, there’s no telling what will happen.

• Connect with Mark on Twitter: @markjmill

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