Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Why Amazon Fire phone is likely to be a damp squib

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talks about the new Fire Phone
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talks about the new Fire Phone

Last week, it was all about phones. Two in particular dominated our attention: Apple's upcoming iPhone 6 and Amazon's Fire phone.

The first looks set to be a complete winner. The second already looks like an also-ran.

The iPhone 6 will clean up for one reason and one reason only: bigger screens. The device will probably come with a choice of two screens, a 4.7-inch model and a 5.5-inch model.

Up until now, Apple has stubbornly refused to follow consumer demand into the five-inch screen phone market, sticking instead to the assertion that its 3.5-inch and 4-inch smartphones (the iPhone 4 and 5, respectively) are the "most appropriate" size for ordinary phone users.

This has been a gift to Google, whose Android devices have principally been the ones to benefit. It's 5-inch phones from Samsung, Sony, HTC and others are the devices that now have a discernible wow factor. But all that looks set to change this autumn as the world's most profitable smartphone company follows its Android rivals into the five-inch phone category.

Apple's U-turn is the right thing to do. When it comes to phones, size is very important. Using a 4-inch device for ordinary activities such as Facebook, web-browsing and email is a little like getting a 14-inch "portable" television. It will do, but it's hardly the way you want to consume most of your content.

People who say that phones are not for watching videos or live feeds remind me of those who used to say that phones "are just for calls and texts".

They're wrong. Anyone with a decent smartphone and a good data connection knows how handy their device is for watching live World Cup matches on RTE's Player right now.

"But isn't that what tablets are for?" some ask. Yes, if you like carrying around a bunch of devices. And, to be fair, some people do.

Indeed, this is probably the marketplace that has kept tablet devices such as the iPad mini at a slightly higher level than may reasonably anticipated. If you choose a mini-phone like the current iPhone, you probably will need a bigger device to do any sustained online stuff.

But all of that is now changing. Indeed, Apple's own iPad peak may have passed: its last set of accounts revealed that iPad sales fell by over 10 per cent, year on year.

Cheaper rival devices is one explanation for this. But big smartphone substitution is a more plausible one. (In my own case, I use tablets far less than I used to, because my 5-inch phone does 80 per cent of what my tablet can do, in a totally acceptable way.)

Apple seems to have finally twigged this and, as is its noble tradition, it is not too proud to eat part of its own lunch. So when it launches its new large iPhones, it will give Samsung and the rest of them a serious run for their money.

Amazon, on the other hand, looks like a mug this week. Admittedly, this is a very rare occurrence. But with its Fire smartphone, it has managed to rustle up what looks like a sure-fire dud.

The Fire smartphone is, as others have already pointed out, an e-shopping machine masquerading as a high-end phone.

There's nothing wrong with pushing your ecosystem to the max. But when Amazon does this with its Kindle Fire tablet, or Tesco does it with its Hudl tablet, they give it to you at a knockdown price as a quid pro quo. Not the Fire phone, which will cost a whopping €500 – almost as much as an iPhone 5 or a Samsung Galaxy S5.

And for what? A phone with a cut-down version of Android that doesn't include Google Maps or YouTube. Instead, it includes a scanner that allows you to buy stuff immediately if you scan its barcode. It also touts "3D" functionality. If Amazon had paid attention to market trends, it should have copped that 3D is up there with voice-recognition technology as a consumer feature. It's limp and unloved.

It's an unusual misstep from Amazon, which usually approaches its markets with intelligence and originality. But you can expect to see this phone's price plummet by Christmas time – it won't sell any other way.

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