Amazon unveiled its first phone Wednesday. It has some innovative features, but its primary function seems to be getting people to buy more stuff from Amazon.

The main gimmick of the “Fire” phone is an array of four cameras (the phone has six cameras in total) that track the user’s face and allow unique spatial interaction and a quasi-3-D interface. The Verge reports, “some apps on the phone will have a three-dimensional depth to them, and tilting the phone will let you peer around edges, just as you can with real objects. It’s miles away from the accelerometer-based gimmicks we’ve seen on older 3D phones. In fact, it’s not really even fair to call it 3D in the traditional sense. You’re looking around objects, but there’s no attempt to make stuff pop off the screen.”

Amazon has cleverly built in a disguised bar code scanner. There’s a dedicated button that puts the rear camera in “Firefly mode,” which lets you capture the phone number from someone’s business card or, more likely, find out how much cheaper you can get something on Amazon. It’s a revealing feature that speaks to this device’s true function: to buy more stuff from the mega retailer. The phone can identify potential purchases from images and audio recordings, letting you instantly buy (from Amazon) that song on the radio or that book on your friend’s shelf.

Amazon has been laying the groundwork for this device for some time. It created its own forked version of the Android operating system, which also powers the company’s Kindle Fire tablets. Amazon has its own app store, allowing the company independence from Google. Prime subscribers get a Spotify clone (with less music) and streaming video.

And that’s where the Fire phone gets seriously controversial. It’s an AT&T exclusive at launch, and that’s probably because Amazon is taking advantage of Ma Bell’s net neutrality-undermining sponsored data scheme. Basically, AT&T will not count any Amazon-purchased video or music you stream against your plan’s data cap. Instead, Amazon will probably foot the bill. That may seem like a boon to consumers, but it augurs a world in which wealthy, established companies can buy consumer loyalty while anti-innovation telecoms fatten their wallets. Instead of complaining about their paltry 2GB monthly allowances, customers will probably settle for watching “Veronica Mars” on Amazon when they’re on the bus, while saving “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix for when they get to a Wi-Fi connection. And it’s a slippery slope from there.

But the worst thing about the Amazon phone is its price: $200 on contract is in the same ballpark as top-tier offerings from Apple, Samsung, HTC and others. But the new Galaxy S5, HTC One M8 and even the soon-to-be-replaced iPhone 5S have more impressive specs than the Fire phone. Sure, you won’t get the 3-D trickery if you go another route, but you will get access to either the iPhone App Store or Google’s Play Store, both of which carry far more apps than Amazon’s forked Android shop. As of this posting, the M8 and Galaxy S5 are available for $99 on contract from Amazon itself. Both phones are superior on paper in several ways to the Fire phone.

Two positives that demand mention: The Fire phone comes with Amazon’s Mayday service, which lets you speak to a tech support representative whenever you get stuck. The rep can even hijack your device to fix the problem. It’s a very cool feature that others should imitate as soon as possible and may appeal to less tech-savvy users. Also, Amazon is offering unlimited cloud storage for all photos taken with the phone. Microsoft, Google and Yahoo all offer pretty great deals on photo backup and storage, and may as well be considered free, but free is free and it beats even Flickr’s incredible one-terabyte cap.

— Posted by Peter Z. Scheer

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