When the Fire Phone launches July 25, the world will get to decide if its flashier features like Dynamic Perspective and Firefly are enough to make up for a smaller selection of apps and no familiar Google apps like Gmail and Google Maps.
After some hands on time with the phone last month, I think the Fire Phone has the potential to alternatively frustrate or delight, just because it's so different than the iPhones and Android phones we've grown accustomed to in recent years. Fire OS is a much bigger departure from stock Android than the skins we're used to seeing from companies like Samsung and Sony. Amazon's phone is full of surprises for users to find, from its tilt-and-jerk gestures to highly contextual menus that can show more or less detail when you tilt the phone just so. Here are some examples of smaller touches that could help the Fire Phone glow a little brighter when it arrives later this month.
The right panel for the job
When you hold the Fire Phone in your hand, a quick flick to the right or left pops out a panel on either side of the screen. (You can also drag the panels in with your finger from the right or left edge of the screen.) From the home screen, the right-hand panel works like Notification Center in iOS: it shows the current weather, a snapshot of your calendar events for the day, and notifications from your apps. It also automatically shows shipment and delivery status for your recent Amazon orders, a no-brainer for sure, but handy nonetheless.
That right-hand panel changes up when you're in different apps--hopefully this won't make it hard to find your notifications when you're looking for them, but it's a great place to hide extra tricks the various apps can do, without cluttering up their main interfaces too much.
For example, in the calculator app, the right panel has a tip calculator feature that also helps you split a restaurant bill between friends...mor enemies who just enjoy eating together. When a call comes in to your Fire Phone, that right panel hides some prewritten text messages that you can reply with instead of picking up: "I'll call you later," for example, or "Can't talk right now. What's up?" Which could lead to a slew of text messages blowing up your phone while you're presumably indisposed, but you did kind of ask for it, didn't you?
You'll find similar quick-replies in the calendar app, so with just a tap you can let the organizer of a meeting know you're "Running a couple minutes late" or that she should "Go ahead and start without me." ("Because I'm held up in Target scanning everything in sight with Firefly and it could be a while" is just kind of implied.)
In the Fire Phone's Settings app, the right panel will hold the settings you've used most recently, something I think iOS and Android proper should steal pronto. When listening to a book in the Audiobooks app, the right panel will show stats like your listening time per day, which seems less useful than the contextual panel in the Music app that shows the lyrics of the currently playing song, synced up to its progress.
Firefly is the feature that can scan products, but that's not all it does: It also can pick up email addresses, URLs, and phone numbers from fliers or business cards. It can recognize music or works of fine art. It can recognize the show or movie playing on your TV and tell you which actors are in the scene. The list of results you get when you Firefly something includes links to buy it on Amazon--as you would expect from a phone built by a giant retailer--but thanks to a Firefly SDK, developers can add deep links into their own apps, too, making Firefly useful even if you never buy a thing.
At last month's Fire Phone announcement, examples shown of Firefly extensions included creating an iHeartRadio station based on the identified song or searching StubHub for tickets to upcoming concerts by the song's artist. If you scan some food packaging, a deep link in the Firefly results will let you look up that food on MyFitnessPal, where you can find out its nutritional value and add it to your daily log.
Another Firefly integration that's likely to get a lot of use (by me!) is Vivino, an app that lets you take a photo of a wine label and find out its average price, rating, and reviews from your fellow oenophiles. Using Firefly to scan the labels should be faster thanks to the Fire Phone's dedicated Firefly button--just press and hold it from any app (or even if the phone is locked), and you're ready to scan. And then when you tap the result that launches the Vivino app, it opens right to the wine you're looking for.
If you pull up a movie or TV show on your Fire Phone, you can fling it over to your Fire TV, which turns your phone into the remote, while also giving you second screen content from IMDb and Amazon's own X-Ray data. X-Ray is a syncronized display that identifies the actors in each scene, so when you have those "Hey it's that guy!" moments it'll take very little effort to find out who that guy actually is.
Better yet, if you tilt the phone while looking at the actor photos in X-Ray, the images toggle between the actor's normal headshot, and their costumed character in whatever you're watching. So you can rest assured that Andy Serkis isn't actually an ape, I suppose.
This one's kind of an upsell, but still kind of cool. Like the Kindle Fire tablets, the Fire Phone has an Immersion Reading feature, which plays the audiobook while highlighting the text so you can follow along. Since not everyone makes a habit of buying their books in more than one format, Amazon is including the audiobook version when you download a free e-book sample, so you have a chance to try being read to.
Lighting a Fire
Amazon certainly put a lot of work into making the phone as consumer-friendly, since the retailer's very best customers are the ones most likely to buy it. The test will be if developers embrace the SDKs for the Dynamic Perspective and Firefly capabilities, giving users more apps to download and more reasons to play with those features.
The X-Ray features and Immersion Reading probably won't cause a sudden spike in sales of the Fire TV or e-book-and-audiobook bundles. But they're a nice nod to Amazon's superfans. If Prime subscribers make up about 10 percent of Amazon's customers, and a smaller slice of those--say 10 percent of Prime subscribers--actually buy the phone, then that customer base represents Amazon's best 1 percent--the company needs to keep those users excited and engaged.