Another month, another burst of “Amazon is producing a smartphone” rumors.
This time it’s TechCrunch doing the leaking, courtesy of the ever-popular anonymous sources, who reportedly told the publication that the online retailer is developing two smartphones for release at some undetermined point. One of those smartphones is apparently a “budget” model, while the other boasts top-shelf features such as a 3D user interface to go along with a premium price.
That premium smartphone, codenamed “Smith,” apparently includes an “image recognition feature” that will match pictures of real-world objects to products in the Amazon store. On the hardware side of things, four integrated cameras will track head and eye movements and use that data to render the user interface in accurate 3D—TechCrunch describes the effect as a more precise version of what Apple is doing in iOS 7, where tilting the device makes the UI background “move” correspondingly.
In theory, any Amazon smartphone would run a variant of FireOS, a heavily modified version of Google Android that already powers Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets.
Rumors of an Amazon smartphone extend back several quarters; as recently as May, The Wall Street Journal reported that the retailer was hard at work on a mobile device with a 3-D screen.
The big question is how Amazon would differentiate its smartphones in a crowded market (other manufacturers have tried some variation on 3D; none have succeeded). The retailer has already achieved a considerable measure of success with its Kindle Fire tablets, which are basically portable vending machines; by making those devices as cheap as possible, and earning the bulk of its revenues and profit off selling e-books and streaming content, Amazon managed to create a viable alternative to Apple’s iPad and the various Android tablets on the market.
But smartphones are expected to deliver far more: users need to make calls on them, for one thing, and often want to use all sorts of productivity and communications apps while on the move. That means any smartphone, if it wants to become a viable player in the market, needs (in addition to a 3G or 4G connection) a fertile ecosystem of third-party apps and services—and while Amazon’s launched its own in-house app store, that platform is nowhere near as diverse as the ones backed by Apple and Google.
In order to make its smartphones stand out, Amazon could follow its Kindle playbook and sell them for ultra-cheap, so long as users are willing to sit through ads and/or do all their downloading and shopping via Amazon’s services. That might be enough to draw in a lot of potential buyers—but its no guarantee that Amazon (even if it wanted to) would be able to dominate a smartphone arena filled with strong competitors.