The Amazon Fire phone was a project that resulted from an idea by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to have a smartphone with an advanced 3D display that users could interact with through gestures in the air rather than just having to interact by tapping the display. This capability become known as “Dynamic Perspective” when the phone was eventually launched. It allowed a number of features such as auto scrolling of web pages without having to touch the display, a new range of “immersive apps” and an “enhanced carousel” that could respond dynamically to interaction and gestures from the user. The way Amazon implemented the technology also gave users the impression that the on-screen image in some applications, was three dimensional.
To enable this, the handset had four infrared cameras located in each of the four corners of the front face of the phone around its 4.7-inch screen. The phone also had a rear facing camera. This resulted in the initial code name for the device, Tyto, which is the genus for the owl species, because the phone could see from “both sides of its head.” The phone also had a gyroscope to help detect gestures.
It has been reported that the specialised cameras, which were sourced from Japan, cost $5 per phone - a considerable investment and also a challenge given the drain they had on battery life.
The Fire Phone was designed to work on Amazon’s own version of Android, Fire OS, which was also used on its Fire tablets.
Beyond the “Dynamic Perspective” capability, another key feature of the phone was Firefly. This used the camera and “Amazon’s deep catalogue of physical and digital content” to quickly recognise things in the real world such as web and email addresses, phone numbers, QR and bar codes, movies, music, and “millions of products” providing a call to action for users. All users had to do was press and hold the dedicated Firefly button to discover helpful information within seconds. Amazon also hoped to get developers to use the Firefly software development kit to integrate this capability into their apps.
The Fire Phone’s development, which started in 2010, took so long that the initial specs, including the processor, had to be updated during the project as the phone was no longer competitive with rival products on the market. This second iteration of the phone had the codename Duke.
Interestingly, a more basic, lower cost smartphone was also in development with phone maker HTC at the same time as the Fire Phone. It had the codename Otus, and was also known as the “Prime Phone”, but was later abandoned with all the effort being put into the flagship Fire Phone.
Amazon’s ambitions for the Fire Phone were reflected in its decision to manufacture 300,000 Fire phone devices ready for the launch of the product which took place in June 2014. The phone was initially offered exclusively with US carrier AT&T for $199 with a two year contract and started shipping on 25 July 2014.
Despite early high hopes for the Fire Phone, it quickly became clear that it was a commercial failure. The scale of the failure was underlined in October 2014 when Amazon wrote-off $170 million worth of Fire Phone inventory.
The project was eventually abandoned in August 2015 and Amazon officially stopped selling the Fire Phone in September 2015.
Ian Fried, the VP who was in charge of the phone, later admitted that despite the differentiation on the product, customers did not really care about it. He also pointed out that Amazon had not aligned the phone with Amazon’s core brand principles of offering great value products. It stands a rare example of Amazon entering a market at such scale and failing. Many of the lesson learned from the Fire Phone project went on to shape the development approach to the Echo smart speaker which in contrast to the Fire Phone has become hugely successful.