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The Amazon Fire Phone: yet another wall for the Android garden

Posted by Alex Perryman on 23rd June 2014

Amazon’s new Fire smartphone has been a popular talking point over the last week.

It must be said, the Amazon Fire has some interesting features; mainly its tightly-integrated purchasing and media services designed to hook you back into Amazon’s ecosphere and make it harder for you to get out:

  • It’ll listen to tunes and buy them from the Amazon store
  • It’ll automatically identify television series that you like and download episodes automatically for you in the background, so they’re always there, downloaded when you want them.
  • It will automatically recognise objects and let you buy them from Amazon

Indeed, Chief executive Jeff Bezos portrayed the Fire Phone primarily as a gateway to Amazon’s own services.

So what’s the problem?

While none of this is hugely original, it’s all perfectly nice. It’s obvious that Amazon is making a play to own the whole end-to-end process from phone to app/object purchase.

However, there are a whole series of objections to trying to further this business model through this particular phone.

  1. It’s very expensive for what it is. Ars Technica has written a very interesting article rubbishing the Fire for entering the market at a price point that competes with the iPhone, rather than pricing-down, as was the case with the Kindle Fire. I can’t say I disagree.
  2. It’s on an untested OS with a much more limited ecosphere of support and app-compatibility. Although, to be fair, that same point could be made of any OS in its infancy, this seems like an OS solving a problem that, to my eyes, doesn’t exist to be solved.

Another walled garden

However, this is my really big objection: Doesn’t it feel to you like companies are starting to go down the route that text messaging started off on? Remember that? When every company wanted to keep you on their phone/network deal, and therefore would only allow you to send text messages or MMS to people also on the same network as you, with no interworking? A classic case of businesses trying to own as much as possible, while delivering incompatibilities that, in the end, hurt everybody.

Apple made a huge success of developing an ecosystem that, essentially, locked you into a gated garden. Apple’s phone was really an entry-point to the ecosystem. Apple’s philosophy seems to be, ‘as long as it’s not anti-competitive we’ll steer you into buying our apps, buying our music, buying our books’. And now Amazon is going the same way? Doesn’t this just mean less choice and flexibility to the customer?

Yes, in many ways this is an old issue, but the Fire smartphone brings it somewhat to the fore again. And yes, I daresay Amazon will continue to allow other, competitive services into their own walled garden. However, the fact remains that here is another phone whereby, if you want to change phone you will, yet again, have to dump an entire ecosystem of incompatible purchases, (purchased from the Amazon Store), and start again.

The original vision behind Android was supposed to be to standardize; to make a wide variety of cheap phones available to everyone, with apps that could work across a variety of devices and be mutually compatible. Now Amazon is creaming off a new version of Android for smartphones, thus creating yet another mutually-incompatible ecosphere to trouble users and developers alike just to divert profit towards Amazon?

We should ask ourselves whether the continuation of this trend is good for the consumer? And in a world where people are already signed into Apple and Samsung’s ecosphere, within which they can already access Amazon’s services, does the market have the incentive to tolerate yet another ‘smartphone walled garden’? I doubt it.

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Alex Perryman

Alex joined Wildfire in 2007. He is renowned for his ability to pick up complex technologies and new industries extremely quickly.