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Amazon yesterday, as expected and long anticipated, introduced its first smartphone, dubbed the Fire, which will begin shipping on July 25 and uses - exclusively, for the moment - AT&T mobile service. Also as anticipated, Fire is designed not just to be a phone - in fact, the act of making or taking a call was not even demonstrated at the launch event by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos - but rather as an instrument designed to seamlessly connect users to the Amazon ecosystem, making it easier to buy pretty much anything that Amazon sells.

Key to this is what Amazon is calling its Firefly technology, which combines the company's "catalog of physical and digital content with multiple image, text and audio recognition technologies to quickly identify web and email addresses, phone numbers, QR and bar codes, plus over 100 million items, including movies, TV episodes, songs, and products. Simply press and hold the dedicated Firefly button to discover helpful information and take action in seconds." In many ways, Firefly has been created to take the act of showrooming to a whole new level, making it possible and supremely easy to see almost any product in a store - or pretty much anyplace else - and instantly order it up from Amazon. (Presumably, at least for the time being, this will not include books published by Hachette or DVDs produced by Warner Bros., since both of those companies are engaged in pricing disputes with Amazon that have limited the access that customers have to their product lines on Amazon.)

The new Fire phone also includes something that Amazon calls Dynamic Perspective, which it says "uses four ultra-low power specialized cameras and four infrared LEDs built into the front face of Fire, a dedicated custom processor, sophisticated real-time computer vision algorithms, and a new high-performing and power-efficient graphics rendering engine." What that all means, Bezos said at the launch event, is that Fire "recognizes where a user's head is relative to the device--we use it to offer customers a more immersive experience, one-handed navigation, and gestures that actually work."

Fire will be sold in a 32GB model for $199, including a two-year contract, or in a 64GB model for $299 with a two-year contract. Monthly buying programs also are available. Amazon also is including a year's free Prime membership with the phone … presumably as a way of making its ecosystem even more seductive to users.

In an interview with the Seattle Times Bezos said that while Firefly and Dynamic Perspective are important, they are just ingredients in a larger recipe for success. "Those two are very unique and very important, and they will drive people to like the phone. But I think it’s too simplistic to say, 'Is this the feature that’s going to get people to switch?' I would resist that. I think you have to look at the totality of it. We put a huge amount of effort into making this a great phone. What doesn’t work is going up against an established competitor with a me-too product. Our job is to build great products, and then customers get to choose."

In its analysis, the New York Times wrote that 'for Amazon, a company whose previous devices have had innovative pricing plans that often involved selling devices at cost, the Fire phone’s uninspired price tag is a surprising disappointment. The world needed a great, cheap smartphone. With its huge reach, obsessive dedication to customer service, and a willingness to forgo immediate profits, Amazon seems uniquely capable of delivering such a device.

"But instead of a cheap phone, Amazon delivered a device packed with many high-end, whiz-bang features. Some of those features may be attractive to people who already love Amazon, but for people who aren’t looking to be hooked so intimately into Amazon’s brain, it’s hard to see what this phone offers over the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy or any other top-of-the-line smartphone on the market today."

The Times went on to say that "Amazon’s phone suffers severe shortcomings compared with similarly priced rivals. Its app store doesn’t have anywhere near the number of third-party programs currently available on the iPhone or Android devices. There are more than 200,000 apps in Amazon’s store, but almost all are designed for the firm’s tablets. IOS and Android have app stores approaching a million titles."

The Los Angeles Times noted that "Amazon faces a major battle to get the attention of consumers, who have overwhelmingly settled on Apple or Samsung phones and have spent years downloading apps and personalizing their devices. The odds of a third player breaking through, as Microsoft has learned with its Windows Mobile phones, is a long shot for even companies with deep pockets. The once-ubiquitous BlackBerry, meanwhile, all but disappeared during the last few years."

Advertising Age wrote that "it's not yet clear how Amazon plans to market Fire Phone. But, historically, the retailer has given its hardware devices plenty of support. From 2008 to 2012, its ad spending more than quadrupled as the online retailer moved to market its hardware devices -- the Kindle e-reader and Kindle Fire tablet -- and its Amazon Prime paid membership service. Last year, the company reported $3.05 billion in marketing and promotional spending."

MarketWatch described Bezos as "the new Steve Jobs," adding that "Bezos has artfully broken the media’s code and figured out how to use journalists to keep the public hooked on his company’s pronouncements. Is this a form of media manipulation? You betcha. Successful politicians do it all the time, by feeding fresh news to grateful, scoop-happy reporters on a regular basis."
KC's View:
A friend of mine likes to say that Amazon's central goal is to shorten the time between desire and fulfillment; I like to say that Amazon wants to create a path of least resistance between wanting and having. We're saying precisely the same thing, and the new Fire is yet another example of Amazon looking to "make it easier for people to buy stuff," as opposed to aggressively selling things.

That's what the Dash is all about, and the Fire TV, and the Kindle … and so the Fire phone is just the latest in a series of appliances in this tradition.

I certainly think that retailers that compete with Amazon - and let's face it, every retailer competes with Amazon - should see this as a potential game-changer. I think that this puts Amazon potentially in an even stronger negotiating position in dealing with suppliers. And I think that even though Bezos suggests that if Amazon does a lot of data tracking it will be transparent to the user, that is to understate significantly the extent to which Amazon will be able to get into our lives.

The question I'm asking myself right now is, would I get the Fire phone?

I honestly don't know. I'm using an old iPhone 4S and my contract is up, so I'm in play. I've always been an Apple guy, but I've also always been an Amazon guy. So I'm a little torn…but I do know one thing. In late July, I'm going to find my way to an AT&T store….because this is one item that I want to feel in my hands and play with before I buy it.

I love technology, but I'm not sure that I want to be a rat in Amazon's maze … at least, not to this extent.