It's hard to really feel genuinely surprised about hardware announcements. As fans of technology, we often know about the thing being announced before a company does the actual announcing. This was mostly the case with Amazon's announcement of the Fire Phone, which happened one year ago today. What we didn't know back then was that, 365 days later, the phone would practically have vanished from our minds.
Rumors of an Amazon phone rattled around for years. Considering Amazon's hardware experience and familiarity with Android, it seemed a reasonable enough proposition. The thinking was that, at the very least, it wouldn't take Amazon much effort to make a phone — even if it wasn't that good.
An "Amazon Phone" was rumored for years
Then new rumors of a 3D display started, quickly fueled by the discovery of patents that had been filed years before. In April of last year, leaked photos of the phone revealed a nearly final picture of the pieces most of us had put together. Amazon's phone would have decent specs — like 2GB of RAM and a Snapdragon processor — and a 4.7-inch, 720p display surrounded by a bunch of cameras to create some sort of three-dimensional illusion. We knew it wouldn't go as far as offering an experience like the one found on the Nintendo 3DS, so exactly what this screen would look like became a major source of debate.
While the effect was fun, it wound up being little more than a tech demo. The Fire Phone's lock screen was really the only part of the phone that took advantage of the "dynamic perspective" feature. App developers never seemed to warm to the idea, and those that did never used it for more than gimmicks. Gamers hated it. It also didn't help that the Fire Phone was expensive and exclusive to AT&T, or that its good camera was beleaguered by awful performance, or that it ran on an extremely confused operating system.
But the real problem with the Fire Phone was that no one bought it. The Fire Phone's sales faltered so quickly after its release that only Wile E. Coyote could relate to its demise. Amazon deployed parachutes. In September it dropped the on-contract price from $199 to 99¢. It wasn't enough; in October, Amazon's senior vice president of devices admitted to Fortune that they "didn't get the price right." One month later the company dropped the off-contract price to $199.
The cost of this giant swing-and-miss was gruesome. When Amazon announced its earnings for the third quarter of 2014 the company admitted to an operating loss of $544 million dollars — about $170 million of which was attributable to the failure of the Fire Phone. Worse, $83 million worth of the lame devices went unsold, and were left collecting dust.
Amazon still has $83 million worth of Fire Phones lying around
Firefly, the phone's built-in object recognition engine, was a signal of Amazon's real purpose for the Fire Phone: get people to buy more stuff through Amazon. It's a philosophy that shows up in all of Amazon's devices. Some, like the Fire Phone or the Amazon Echo, try to obscure that purpose without burying it completely. Others are more blunt about the underlying intent, like the Dash, Amazon's "magic wand" that lets you order items with your voice, and the "Dash button" which literally allows purchases with the press of one button.
The Fire Phone felt cold and dull. Amazon crowded it with gimmicks and a terrible version of Android, and left themselves no room for good design. Nothing about the Fire Phone felt approachable, and in turn its utilitarian nature seemed to enhance people's dislike for things like the abundance of cameras.
Aside from a few software updates and random discounts, Amazon has left the Fire Phone in its rear view and trained its hardware focus back on the things it's good at; it has since released the popular Kindle Voyage and this week the company announced a new version of the Kindle Paperwhite. It's developed award-winning shows that draw people to its video streaming service. It's somehow finding ways to deliver things to our doorsteps at a faster clip.
Amazon will be fine, but that doesn't mean Jeff Bezos hasn't taken the flop personally, an idea explored in this Fast Company report. According to interviews with more than three dozen current or former employees, many who worked on the Fire Phone, Bezos "drove every aspect of the phone’s creation from the outset." He personally chose things like the 13-megapixel camera over an 8-megapixel version, and demanded the 3D functionality from a reticent design team. One source said "we were building [the Fire Phone] for Jeff."
But Jeff Bezos likes to gamble. He bought The Washington Post. He's starting a drone delivery service. He's trying to go to space. In that context, maybe the Fire Phone wasn't really that big of a bet.
As a product, it's still a failure. Phones are the most personal device we own, so it's hard to fault Amazon for trying to capitalize on that. Making a successful phone is far from easy, but in the end it won't be the hardest thing Amazon ever attempts.
Verge Video archive: Hands-on with the Fire Phone (June 2014)