Amazon.com unveiled the Fire Phone smartphone Wednesday, featuring a way to differentiate the device from rivals by using clever technology that identifies book covers, labels and bar codes to make shopping easier.
“Can we build a better phone for our most engaged customers? Can we build a better phone for our Amazon Prime member?” Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos asked at the device’s launch in Seattle. “I’m excited to tell you the answer is yes.”
The phone, scheduled to ship July 25, will be offered exclusively on AT&T’s network and will start at $199 for the version with 32 gigabytes and a two-year contract on AT&T. That includes 12 months of Prime membership, which otherwise costs $99 a year.
The phone is Amazon’s latest bid to more deeply control the devices that run the content it sells. The company first jumped into the device business in 2007, when it debuted its Kindle e-reader. Since then, it has launched the Kindle Fire tablet line and, in April, the Fire TV set-top box.
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The Fire Phone, which sports a 4.7-inch screen, will have 2 gigabytes of RAM, a 2.2 gigahertz quad core processor and a 13 megapixel camera.
Amazon is diving into a market that’s dominated by Apple and Samsung. It’s also trying to succeed where others, such as Microsoft and Facebook, have either made only modest headway or failed.
In an interview with The Seattle Times after the launch event, Bezos said it would be a mistake for Amazon to write off the market because rivals are already there.
“If you take that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, then basically what you’re saying is that there can never be new entrants in any arena, which we know isn’t true,” Bezos said. “These things do change. We’re incredibly early in wireless devices. They players come and go. They switch. They change.”
The key, Bezos said, was to come up with a device that’s differentiated from the ones already in the market.
“What doesn’t work is going up against an established competitor with a me-too product,” Bezos said. “Our job is to build great products, and then customers get to choose.”
Bezos highlighted two breakthroughs at the launch event, held at Fremont Studios in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.
The technology that makes it easier to shop, an important scenario for a phone from the online retail giant, is called Firefly. Customers can use the phone’s camera to scan bar codes, book covers and even phone numbers or Web addresses to tap into servers to find data about those items.
Firefly can also use the phone’s microphone to determine the name of a song playing nearby or a television program on a TV.
With that information, Amazon can offer consumers the ability to buy those items or just learn more about them from the Web.
Bezos is so keen on Firefly that Amazon has included a dedicated Firefly button to make it easy to use.
“Firefly is so easy to access. Customers are going to love this,” Bezos said.
The device also comes with a clever bit of tech called “Dynamic Perspective,” which lets users tilt the phone to navigate websites, fly through items on Amazon’s shopping site and dig out new information from a map application.
With a news story from a website, users can gently tilt the phone up and the story will slowly scroll on its own.
On Amazon’s site, users can tilt up and down to get a close-up of a particular product.
When listening to a song, users can tilt the phone to the side to see the lyrics and tilt back to see the album art.
”It’s completely a very natural easy, one-handed gesture,” Bezos said.
To make Dynamic Perspective work, Amazon has placed four cameras at each corner on the front of the phone. That way, the phone can track users’ faces to know where they are as they look at the phone, so the imagery can move with them.
Bezos talked about the significant challenge of making the technology work, taking into account the different type of faces that users have, the different lighting scenarios in which people would use the phone, and the problems of users wearing hats or having beards.
“All of this variety is an extremely difficult machine-learning problem,” Bezos said.
Amazon collected millions of images in the lab and in the real world to solve the challenge.
“We got really good at tracking faces and finding heads — and doing that in real time,” Bezos said.
As clever as the new features are, the Fire Phone will likely take time to build a following, said Rebecca Lieb, an analyst with The Altimeter Group, a research firm.
“Do I think this is going to be the must-have device at Christmas? No,” Lieb said.
But she said Amazon is nothing if not patient. And the mobile phone market is too important for the company to ignore.
Increasingly, consumers are shopping with mobile devices. And a mobile phone will also give Amazon the ability to track consumer habits, something that could have tremendous value as it works to optimize its mobile applications to generate more sales.
“They are not just selling something here,” Lieb said. “They are getting something, too.”
Amazon’s stock, which has slid nearly 20 percent this year, rose 2.7 percent Wednesday, closing at $334.38.
Jay Greene: 206-464-2231 or email@example.com. Twitter: @greene