Amazon Fire dubbed an 'experiment in e-commerce' with lessons for future phones

Firefly button lessens friction in buying, which is what Amazon wants to learn about for future generations

Amazon' first smartphone, the Amazon Fire, has been nothing but controversial.

Panned initially by reviewers before its release a week ago, one expert said on Monday that Amazon's basic intent with the Fire is to field an initial device to mainly gather corporate insights on ways to sell more Amazon products online.

Amazon's Fire phone arrived on July 27. (Photo: Amazon)

"If you view the Fire phone as an effort by Amazon to break into the phone market that then sells millions, this is not it," said Michael Mace, mobile strategist at an independent user testing group called UserTesting. "But if you view it as a long-term experiment to see what's needed to build e-commerce into a phone, then it's a really good experiment to help Amazon find out what's good and what it needs."

Before the Fire arrived on July 27 -- fully seven years after the first iPhone -- many experts predicted Amazon would deploy novel technologies in it to delight and engage its millions of Amazon.com shoppers. It could even bring in a few Android and iOS users to the Amazon fold, they said.

But before sales started, the Fire was quickly skewered by some reviewers who largely debunked its new Firefly and Dynamic Perspective technologies.

Computerworld's JR Raphael called it "different" and "odd" in his initial review.

Walt Mossburg of Re/Code called it an "interesting first step" with new features that are "sometimes outright frustrating."

Amazon hasn't officially disclosed information on initial sales of the Fire. However, Amazon.com has consistently listed the Fire at the top of its best sellers list of contract cell phones since sales began. It was in second place to the Samsung Galaxy S5 on Monday.

The base-level 32GB version of Fire sells unlocked for $649, and is sold exclusively on a two-year contract by AT&T for $200.

As of 10 a.m. ET Monday, there were 368 buyer reviews of the 32 GB model on Amazon's site, with 118 giving it the top five-star rating and 79 giving it just one star. More than 55 of the 368 reviewers said they planned to return the device after trying it out, with some complaining it was priced too high, while others faulted the lack of standard Google apps, a mediocre battery and complicated gestures and navigation.

Separately, UserTesting created a panel of 53 testers who looked at the Fire and evaluated its new features: Firefly, Dynamic Perspective, Carousel and Mayday.

The study revealed that some of those features were deemed useful. The Firefly feature for quickly scanning products to learn more about them over the Web was very popular. Still, it was not popular enough for most of testers to give up their current phone to buy the Fire, although 26% said they planned to buy it when they were ready for an upgrade, Mace said.

Firefly lets users push a button to scan millions of objects, including products, or a QR code to get more information, then to easily evaluate or even buy them on Amazon.com. Of the UserTesting group, 84% said it was their top or second favorite feature in the Fire and 70% ranked it a 4 or 5 out of 5 for ease of use. A series of six short video clips from UserTesting on YouTube shows how Firefly works, along with other Fire technologies.

Dynamic Perspective is a 3D-like technology that relies on four cameras with infrared LED on the front of the phone to follow where a person looks to alter the angle of items being viewed on the display. In the UserTesting group, some users said Dynamic Perspective was "cool" but also "gimmicky" and not especially useful except for in games. Using the technology for auto scrolling wasn't responsive enough.

A Carousel Navigation feature in Fire, which works by tilting the phone to scroll left or right or up or down, was judged least easy to use by the UserTesting testers. Most found it confusing.

Meanwhile, the Mayday button in the Fire smartphone got high ease-of-use scores from the testers to connect quickly to a live help desk agent appearing in video on the screen of the phone. But many said they had problems finding the Mayday button. Mayday was first used in the Kindle Fire HDX tablet, introduced last year.

Mace said the popularity of Firefly is something Amazon will pay special attention to, mainly as a means to find more ways to streamline the online mobile-buying experience. What holds back most e-commerce sellers today is the difficulty buyers have in picking a product and then making an actual purchase after going through a number of steps to get there.

If Amazon can streamline that buying process and reduce buyer "friction" in a purchase, it will put other e-commerce companies at a disadvantage, Mace said. "Other e-commerce companies don't have a phone, which Amazon now does," he said. "The bigger danger that Amazon has faced is if they let somebody else beat them to this."

What matters in sales of the initial Fire device is getting enough buyers to help evaluations for future versions, Mace believes.

"It doesn't look like the Fire will wipe out Android or the iPhone, but this is an experiment to get enough sales to get user feedback," he said. "Version 2 or 3 will be the one to watch. The Fire is a first version of an experiment in e-commerce."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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