With Loyal Customers In Mind, Amazon Unveils Fire Phone

At a gala party on Wednesday, Amazon launched its first smartphone. It is distinguished from other phones by the ease with which you can use it to buy things from Amazon.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Amazon introduced its first smartphone yesterday. It's called the Fire Phone, and the online retailer is eager to sell you one. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, Amazon's larger aim is to use the phone to sell you more of everything else.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's been a rough few weeks for Amazon. Some authors have accused the company of using its dominance in e-books to bludgeon publishers into accepting less money. It's even attracted the ire of Stephen Colbert.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: I'm not just mad at Amazon. I am mad-prime...

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: ...Because I just found out that they are deterring customers from buying books by Stephen Colbert.

(BOOING)

KASTE: But yesterday, the CEO, Jeff Bezos, ignored all that. Where the critics see a potential monopoly, Bezos celebrated the loyalty of Amazon customers. And he prefaced the launch of his new phone with an extended metaphor about buckets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF BEZOS: You can fill a bucket with an eyedropper if the bucket doesn't leak. And you can fill a bucket with a fire hose, but if the bucket leaks, it's still going to be empty tomorrow.

KASTE: In other words, Amazon is eager to hold onto those loyal customers. And that's where this new smartphone comes in. The most eye-catching feature on the Fire Phone is a screen that simulates 3-D.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEZOS: We call this Dynamic Perspective.

(APPLAUSE)

KASTE: The phone has cameras that track where you're looking, changing the perspective and the image as you move your head. It's especially appealing in games.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEZOS: Look around on this image. So I'm tilting the phone to look everywhere at this level.

KASTE: But from a business point of view, the phone's killer app may turn out to be Firefly. That's the one-button feature that lets you scan things in the physical world - books, food products, toilet paper - and then the phone will identify that thing for you. If you're interested, you can buy that thing on the phone. Use this function enough, and Amazon is going to know a lot about you.

JEREMY GILLULA: The questions I would ask are, what sort of information is going to be collected?

KASTE: Jeremy Gillula is a staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

GILLULA: Is it going to be browsing information, location information, call history? I mean, what private information is going to be sort of reported back?

KASTE: That kind of detailed information has been nearly impossible to come by for the company's earlier devices, such as the Kindle e-book. Cameron Janes is a director of product development at Amazon.

CAMERON JANES: We really respect e-customers' privacy. And so we have lots of - if you don't want your data shared, you can turn data off, for instance.

KASTE: But not shared, but can I keep it from going back to Amazon?

GILLULA: You can choose not to use certain features if you don't want to. We think those features are great and add a lot of value to the customer experience, but of course you always have the option not to do that.

KASTE: Of course that doesn't leave many options for people who would like to use those features, if they could know which data are being sent to Amazon as part of the deal. And it's not just Amazon. Tech companies are usually reluctant to disclose the details about the information they collect. It's their secret sauce, but Jeremy Gillula says when a smartphone is made by a retailer, those questions become more pressing.

GILLULA: I mean, it basically comes down to Amazon is trying to sell things. And it's very similar to the way Google is trying to sell ads. I mean, Amazon is just sort of one step closer to that because they're selling it to you directly.

KASTE: So if you end up buying the Fire Phone for its cool 3-D screen, Jeff Bezos hopes you'll also end up feeling comfortable inside of Amazon's bucket. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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