Among the usual spread of device rumors, such as this year’s iPhone handset, there is yet another unusual device frequenting headlines from an unlikely manufacturer: Amazon.
We laughed at the thought of an Amazon-made tablet back in 2011, now the company has seven tablets in its arsenal. Now Amazon is rumored to be creating a smartphone. And despite Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shooting down the rumors back in 2012, the Amazon phone is looking more and more likely.
Two weeks ago, BGR leaked some photos of the alleged smartphone. One week later, it detailed some of the inner workings of the phone and its operating system. And just days ago, it leaked even more information about some perks of the phone’s service plan.
Like Amazon’s other Android-powered Fire tablets, the smartphone will likely feature software which is heavily centered around the Amazon experience, meaning it will not come with access to the typical swath of Google apps and services – Hangouts, the Google Play store, Gmail, etc. Instead, like we’ve seen for the last year and a half, the phone will come with Amazon’s fork of Android. For better or worse, it will be centered heavily around Amazon Prime services, like the on-demand Instant Videos services, its e-commerce store, of course, and Amazon’s own Appstore for Android.
None of this comes as any surprise. It’s all the yawn-worthy information we would safely assume about the long-rumored Amazon phone.
Far more important questions about this purported phone exist and, for the most part, we can answer them with a fair amount of certainty, assuming BGR‘s reports are true. What does this phone entail? What does it look like? Why should we care?
The specs sound fairly modest and average. It’s said to have a 4.7-inche 720p display, 13-megapixel rear camera, 2GB RAM, and a Snapdragon SoC. Based on the leaks and rumors, however, Amazon is shooting for value adds in other places.
In the images BGR leaked two weeks ago, the alleged Amazon smartphone’s frame and design were obscured by a dummy shell. In the shell, though, it bore a striking resemblance to an older device out of Nokia’s lineup, the Lumia 900, except for one, pretty significant detail: it appears to have five cameras fixed to its face. This matches up with other rumors, suggesting the phone would come with a total of six cameras.
What could all these cameras be for?
According to BGR, this unique sensor arrangement will help power the glasses-free 3D interface and extensive gesture controls. One front camera, of course, is a standard image sensor used for taking pictures and video chatting. The other four (one in each corner on the face of the phone) are low-power infrared cameras. These will be used to measure the relative distance and track the user’s face during use so the phone can “make constant adjustments to the positioning of on-screen elements, altering the perspective of visuals on the screen,” says BGR‘s Zach Epstein.
This glasses-free 3D interface is supposed to create a more elaborate shopping experience. Epstein explains, “By shifting the position of the phone, users are able to see three-dimensional product images at different angles to reveal surfaces that cannot be seen in 2D photos.” Also, moving the phone in the maps application will also change the perspective of the maps.
Tilting the phone is also said to trigger various gesture controls, such as revealing the purpose of non-labeled buttons in the calendar app or revealing Yelp ratings after searching for a restaurant in the maps application. Epstein also says the various menus and settings will be accessed by tilting the phone to the left or right.
Finally, it’s said this purported Amazon phone will come with a unique data plan named “Prime Data“. Though the finite details are still a mystery, there are several ways Amazon could offer an advantageous data package to buyers. For instance, Amazon could offer free access to various Prime services – shopping, Instant videos, Kindle book downloads, etc. Some speculate Amazon may be creating a MVNO for its mobile devices to operate on, but BGR‘s sources all but shot those rumors down.
So what can we make of all this?
At first glance, some of the technology and alleged offers sound intriguing, like they could offer some benefit to buyers, particularly those heavily invested in Amazon’s various services. In the same vein, it sounds like a lab experiment gone wrong; it sounds like a horrible bundle of gimmicks.
A gesture-based OS doesn’t sound all bad. BlackBerry 10 and webOS beautifully incorporated gestures, and the minor gestures in Android and iOS are, personally, some of my favorite features.
Tilt gestures, on the other hand, are often wildly inaccurate. Being an integral part of navigation and basing the some of the core interactions with the phone on these tilt gestures sounds like a nightmare waiting to happen.
Do you recall Samsung’s tilt gestures? On previous versions of TouchWiz, you could long-press and icon on the home screen to move it around. Once in “move” mode, simply tilt the phone to move from home screen to home screen. You could also touch the screen with two fingers and tilt the phone forward to zoom in or back to zoom out. Though quite intuitive, neither of these were useful in practice, as accuracy was an issue.
It also poses a question: how does one tilt to access these menus without accidentally throwing the phone into an alternate orientation. I accidentally switch my phones to landscape without tilt gestures. I can only imagine how frustrating this would become by using gestures which encourage tilting your phone from side to side.
And 3D. Need I say more? The ability to view rendered products in 3D does sound like a cool novelty, but two-dimensional 3D renders have served me quite well over the years. 3D has cropped up in the mobile space once before, and it died practically overnight. A four-camera rig seems a bit extensive for a parallax effect, no?
Prime Data, while still mostly a mystery, will likely be little more than a cleverly-worded feature that sounds a lot cooler than it actually is, that only benefits your interaction with Amazon services, not the rest of the Internet. That’s pure speculation, but these promotional or “freebie” data packages are rarely worth bothering with if you’re anything more than a basic user.
Call me jaded, but Kindle Fire products have not moved me since the original Kindle Fire, which I sold just weeks after buying. The Amazon interface is geared too much towards Amazon’s own agenda to truly prioritize a great user experience; it creates app gaps other Android devices don’t have (unless you’re into side-loading tons of apps); and it causes a lot of unnecessary ambiguity in navigation and use.
That alone turns me away from Amazon’s mobile products, yet none of the supposed standout features of the Amazon phone do anything to offset that.
Granted, I’d like to see Amazon break into and disrupt the mobile space, to create some much-needed competition. Unless the Amazon phone is introduced at a killer price point (equal to or below that of the Moto G), though, I can’t see it making much of an impact. A few parlor tricks that make your Amazon shopping experience marginally better won’t change that.