Sarah Mishkin Amazon lights a spark with smartphone Fire

What can a company that proposes using drones to deliver goods instantaneously do to impress?

Amazon tried hard with its Fire phone, the first smartphone ever from the e-commerce giant. It sort of succeeds, but the best thing about the phone is the vision of what it could become after a few rounds of refinements and tweaks.

First, the basics. The phone is, like most, a black rectangle covered in Gorilla Glass. It runs a modified version of Android. The bottom of the phone has one home button (aluminium, but it feels a bit plasticy). The screen is 4.7 inches, with a rubberised edge and high quality front and back facing cameras.

Beyond the basics it gets more creative. Instead of just poking at buttons, the phone can be controlled with gestures that require only one hand — a sort of swivel motion calls up the settings menu, while tilting the phone pulls up menus from the sides of most apps. Instead of a back button as most Android phones have, users just swipe up slightly from the bottom of the phone’s face. The phone has two sets of home screens, one of which holds a grid of app icons, the other of which holds dynamic widgets that show weather, upcoming events, or a few emails from the top of one’s inbox.

For users of Amazon’s Prime service—a free year of which comes with the phone—the phone’s integration into those services including Prime’s free streaming video and music library should be a major selling point. Accessing Prime media services from the phone and being able to sync it up seamlessly with one’s home TV or computer system cuts out a good deal of hassle from switching between devices, and makes it easier to take advantage of one’s Prime membership when not at home.

Going a step further into the newness of what Amazon has offered brings up Firefly and the phone’s unusual 3D display, known formally as dynamic perspective.

These two features are a tougher call. Today, the feel a bit gimmicky, but also promising, perhaps as early brick-like mobile phones once seemed to many.

To take the Firefly feature first. The feature allows users to point the phone at many products or signs to pull out information from them that can either be saved or used to leap automatically to the product’s Amazon page (if one exists, which it probably does, because this is Amazon.) It is already built into Amazon apps on other platforms, but this phone has a button on its side dedicated to the camera and Firefly. That, Amazon executives say, means people are more likely to use it in their daily lives, and not just when they think to shop.

Pointing a phone at a book in order to near instantly buy the Kindle version is perhaps dull, but think of walking past a poster with the phone number for a new store in town or a URL for an upcoming music festival or fair. The use of a button that can automatically recognise and save the pertinent data is a bit clearer. For groceries and home supplies (which unlike books don’t all come with a handy title that makes them easily findable via traditional text searching) the benefit of a button on a phone that can all-but-automatically reorder laundry detergent when it’s running low is not hard to see.

Dynamic perspective is a bit more on the gimmicky side still. Playing games just by looking at the screen and moving one’s eyes around is fun, but likely not as much fun as watching someone on public transit play a game by bobbling his head around. Tilting the phone to call up various menus takes some work getting used to. The technology as developed by Amazon is responsive and works smoothly enough for developers of games and other apps to get creative with, but the potential there has yet to be fulfilled.

The Fire phone is a good one, certainly competitive in performance with phones like Google’s Nexus 5 and the lower-end iPhone 5c. Although it’s somewhat less compelling for those who don’t already have a bias towards using Amazon’s services, it’s not hard to see how features inspired by Firefly or Amazon’s one-handed gesture controls could soon pop up on phones elsewhere.