Why Amazon's Fire Phone hasn't set the smartphone market ablaze

amazon fire phone
Image: Susie Ochs

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When I reviewed Amazon’s new Fire Phone, I compared it to the first iPhone, and the similarities are many. It’s fairly different than what’s come before it. People don’t really know what to do with it yet. It’s got cool features that aren’t being used to their fullest potential, and it will require third-party developers to really push the platform forward. Oh, and it’s locked into one carrier for the time being.

Unfortunately for Amazon, it’s not 2007, and Apple’s playbook for revolutionizing the smartphone industry is pretty outdated. And as such, the Fire Phone is having trouble catching on. It hasn’t even been out for a full month yet, but some analysis from Chitika Insights suggests that the Fire Phone is off to a slow, if steady, start compared to two other recent handsets—the LG G3, which is available on multiple carriers, and the Verizon-exclusive Motorola Droid Ultra.

Jeff Bezos has said that one of Amazon’s jobs with the Fire Phone is “to be patient.” While patience is a virtue, so is actively seeking to overcome what’s holding you back. Here’s what the Fire Phone needs to succeed.

More carriers

att logo

AT&T's Death Star logo invokes fear and dread in the hearts of all who are already on another carrier.

Yes, the iPhone was exclusive to AT&T at its launch in 2007. And a lot of people complained about that, remember? Some didn’t mind being shackled to AT&T for the chance to use Apple’s brand-new, all-touchscreen iPod-that-makes-calls-and-goes-online, and at least AT&T was offering unlimited data plans for it at the time.

For the Fire Phone, AT&T exclusivity is a giant bummer, full stop. Of the four major wireless carriers, it’s pretty much tied with Verizon at about 34 percent market share, but that means about two-thirds of cell phone-carrying Americans don’t have AT&T. Once the Fire Phone shows up on Verizon, Sprint, and/or T-Mobile, its appeal will broaden overnight.

A lower price tag

Again, the iPhone came in ridiculously expensive at first ($499 for 4GB of storage ha ha ha ha ha, no really), but Apple cut the price significantly just a few months later, and has kept pricing consistent ever since. But today, there’s enough competition that price is more important, especially when you’re asking your customers to be early adopters of something new.

firephone techhive TechHive

Hold it high! But price it low. The free year of Prime was a smart idea, since Amazon can discontinue it later without officially "raising" the price. 

Before the Fire Phone launched, I was hoping Amazon would shake up how people buy its phone and pay for data and voice: Maybe a la carte plans like Ting for a customizable, contract-free fit. Maybe a subsidized data plan as a reward for shopping on Amazon, or at least free streaming of Amazon’s own movie, TV, and music offerings. But this was not to be. The Fire Phone is being positioned as a premium handset, and its price does not undercut other top phones like the iPhone 5s or Galaxy S5.

The Kindle Fire HDX is a great tablet at a bargain price—the 7-inch version starts at $229, practically impulse-buy territory, especially since you don’t need to pay for a service plan. To get the Fire Phone into more people’s hands, Amazon should consider a price cut—pushing the free year of Prime and the extra built-in storage isn’t enough. A phone will never be an impulse buy in the same way that a cheap tablet could be. But if you’re trying to get people to switch, give them the lowest barrier to entry possible.

More apps

True, the first iPhone didn’t launch with an App Store at all. We had web apps back in those olden days, and we liked it! (Editor’s Note: We did not, actually.) But that was then, and this is now. The only mobile app store that Apple competed with seven years ago was BlackBerry’s, and the iPhone was so radically different than the key-bedecked BlackBerry phones that it didn’t seem like a direct comparison anyway.

amazon fire phone apps Amazon.com

The Fire Phone's app selection is growing, but switchers are still walking away from thousands of apps on competing platforms.

Today, of course, unless the Fire Phone is your very first smartphone, you’re probably switching from iOS or Android. And in the process, you’re cutting yourself off from a good number of apps that those other platforms have. At this writing, Amazon’s Appstore for Android claims to have 189,264 apps compatible with the Fire Phone, with 11,000 new ones added in the last 30 days. To compare, Windows Phone just passed 300,000, Apple claimed 1.2 million apps (which includes both iPhone and iPad) as of this June, and AppBrain counts more than 1.3 million Android apps in the Google Play Store.

While Amazon has a lot of the basics covered, the Fire Phone can’t access the Google Play Store and doesn’t come with familiar Google-made apps like Google Maps and Gmail, or big-name Microsoft apps like Office Mobile or OWA for reading my work’s Office 365 email.

Choosing a phone in 2014 isn’t just about which handset you like the best. You’re buying into a whole ecosystem, and so far Amazon’s is the most restricted.

Free puppies

No, just kidding. But that would be a fun add-on, right? Amazon wants its Fire Phone to be all about shopping, from using Dynamic Perspective gestures to whip through a carousel of products in the Shop Amazon, to queueing up real-world products to buy online with Firefly. Amazon wants its customers to think of their Fire Phones as mobile shopping devices, and I’m not sure that’s enough reason to buy it just yet.

amazon firefly in action Susie Ochs, TechHive

When something as potentially amazing as Firefly is mostly used to buy Nilla Wafers without having to search for them, you can forgive consumers for yawning a bit.

Apple didn’t realize when it released the iPhone that someday we’d use it as a guitar tuner, bubble level, and blood pressure monitor. Similarly, Amazon isn’t sure yet what kinds of cool things developers will do with the Firefly and Dynamic Perspective SDKs. So far some of the best bespoke Fire Phone apps are still about commerce: StubHub lets you search for concert tickets to see the artist you just ID’ed with Firefly, and Zillow lets you peek around zoomed-in photos with Dynamic Perspective’s head-tracking technology.

Now, I really feel that the reviewers who are quick to dismiss the Fire Phone as just about shopping maybe aren’t the ones in their households who do the bulk of the purchasing. Stocking all the consumables that keep my house running is a tiring and often thankless task, so I’ve found Firefly to be handy (when it works, anyway).

But I realize it’s not a cool enough gimmick to entice huge numbers of switchers. Maybe Amazon should offer free puppies to app developers who can make Firefly and Dynamic Perspective must-haves instead of nice-to-haves.

A phone with unique features, tons of apps that take advantage of them, and a low price: now that’s a Fire that could really catch on.

This story, "Why Amazon's Fire Phone hasn't set the smartphone market ablaze" was originally published by TechHive.

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