Ulterior motive

Tech Life

Dieter Bohm at The Verge, writes:

The phone’s rear camera has a lot more work to do than just taking photos. It also facilitates one of the Fire Phone’s key features: Firefly, a way to scan and identify products and media around you just by pointing a camera at something. Amazon wants you using this a lot, and it’s put a dedicated button on the side of the Fire Phone that’ll send you right into Firefly mode.

This lets the Fire Phone do a number of different things. For one, you can pull up more information about TV shows or paintings, you can look at a record to start a new radio station based on it, or you can scan in text, like a phone number. More important for Amazon though is Firefly’s ability to identify products, like food and books. You can guess exactly where this feature is going: once you scan a product, you’ll have the opportunity to buy it from Amazon. It’s a clear shot at brick-and-mortar retail stores, giving shoppers an incredibly fast way to compare prices. And usually, there’s a good chance that Amazon will win out. There simply has never been a better device to help you indulge in impulse purchases — a prospect that has us both intrigued and terrified in equal parts.

This is precisely what makes me uncomfortable about the new Amazon Fire Phone. Since it was unveiled, this smartphone gave me a bad vibe, but I didn’t know exactly why. After thinking over it a while, maybe I’ve found the reason. The Fire Phone doesn’t feel like a personal device, it feels like a consumer tool, a purchase enabler, and little more. Something that reminds you all the time how very directly it is linked to the business of the company that made it.

You may say “Duh, but of course it is,” and you may also say that it’s how Amazon takes care of its ecosystem, just like Apple does. The difference between the Fire Phone and the iPhone, however, is that when I’m using my iPhone, I don’t feel like I’m holding a device designed to make Apple rich with every 1-click purchase I may make. Sure, Apple takes its 30% cut with every purchase in its various Stores; and sure, Amazon and Apple offer different things and services; but I hope you understand what I mean.

More importantly, the Fire Phone is a customer tool that’s also designed to make you a potential accomplice of Amazon in screwing its competition. With Firefly, the Fire Phone is the best possible device to engage in that practice I despise — entering a shop, scanning an item, and purchasing it online at Amazon instead of buying it from the very shop you’re in. As Bohm writes, often that item’s price will be lower on Amazon, but I’d like to think that, by spending a little more (and sometimes it’s really a matter of a few Euros) you can have the item right now and you can support local businesses. 

I know, the Fire Phone is mostly targeted at Amazon customers, and if you read Farhad Manjoo’s conversation with Jeff Bezos on the New York Times, you’ll see Bezos singing his usual tune, that Amazon is doing what it’s doing to help customers, that the device is designed to be “different constrained by customer caring,” et cetera. And it’s not that I don’t believe that, but — on a purely emotional level — I feel more respected as an Apple customer than as an Amazon customer. I’m not comparing the quality of the service, but the approach. With Amazon, I always have the feeling there’s some ulterior motive at play, like I’m constantly being enticed and nudged towards the purchase of goods. From what I’ve seen so far, the Fire Phone is Amazon’s best device to offer that kind of user experience, which I don’t find appealing at all.

On a final note, as soon as the Fire Phone was introduced, I asked a friend of mine — who does a lot of shopping at Amazon and owns an old Kindle and a Kindle Fire — whether he was interested in getting the phone as well and going ‘all in’ with Amazon’s ecosystem. He promptly replied that no, he wasn’t interested and found the phone “a bit perplexing and kind of creepy.” He added: “And all that tilting and auto-scrolling, no thanks, I’m already seasick as it is.” He’ll keep shopping at Amazon from his Kindle Fire and he’ll definitely keep his iPhone, he says, because he can shop Amazon from there just as well if he wants, and because of the “superior app offer.” The iPhone, he said, is the best of many worlds, while the Fire Phone is just one world — Amazon’s.

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