Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Under Fire

Harry McCrackenAustin Carr1 wrote a huge story on the development and aftermath of Amazon’s Fire Phone for Fast Company, and it’s simultaneously scintillating and scathing:

[Jeff] Bezos didn’t want a me-too device, and the margins a low-cost phone could garner would be minimal, even if it did manage to stand out in an ocean of cheap devices. The only solution, some inside the organization argued, was to differentiate the hardware enough to justify a higher price point and hope to go after some of Apple’s profits. But Apple is a ferocious competitor as well, whose dominance in high-end products was made possible by decades of rigorous R&D, a world-class design team, and its unrivaled approach to hardware and software. The idea that Amazon, a neophyte hardware maker whose CEO has shown no special affinity for design, could successfully attack Apple might seem quixotic.

Even a word like “quixotic” might be an understatement for a company like Amazon trying to go after Apple’s high price point. Samsung was able to do it because they didn’t really have a household brand image pre-Galaxy.2 You didn’t really think of Samsung; they were just a supplier. Samsung could be Brand X, for all it’s worth. So when they came along with a smartphone that looked kind of like an iPhone on carriers that didn’t offer the iPhone, that looked like a pretty good proposition, even at a similar high price point.

Amazon, on the other hand, does have a definite brand image: they’re the place you go to buy low-cost products. Apple is seen as an affordable luxury brand with exemplary taste and premium quality. And Jeff Bezos doesn’t exactly have great taste:

Bezos drove the team hard on one particular feature: Dynamic Perspective, the 3-D effects engine that is perhaps most representative of what went wrong with the Fire Phone. Dynamic Perspective presented the team with a challenge: Create a 3-D display that requires no glasses and is visible from multiple angles. The key would be facial recognition, which would allow the phone’s cameras to track a user’s gaze and adjust the 3-D effect accordingly. After a first set of leaders assigned to the project failed to deliver, their replacements went on a hiring spree. One team even set up a room that they essentially turned into a costume store, filling it with wigs, sunglasses, fake moustaches, and earrings that they donned for the cameras in order to improve facial recognition. “I want this feature,” Bezos said, telling the team he didn’t care how long it took or how much it cost. Eventually, a solution was discovered: Four cameras had to be mounted at the corners of the phone, each capable of identifying facial features, whether in total darkness or obscured by sunglasses. But adding that to the phone created a serious battery drain.

And team members simply could not imagine truly useful applications for Dynamic Perspective. As far as anyone could tell, Bezos was in search of the Fire Phone’s version of Siri, a signature feature that could make the device a blockbuster. But what was the point, they wondered, beyond some fun gaming interactions and flashy 3-D lock screens. “In meetings, all Jeff talked about was, ‘3-D, 3-D, 3-D!’ He had this childlike excitement about the feature and no one could understand why,” recalls a former engineering head who worked solely on Dynamic Perspective for years. “We poured surreal amounts of money into it, yet we all thought it had no value for the customer, which was the biggest irony. Whenever anyone asked why we were doing this, the answer was, ‘Because Jeff wants it.’ No one thought the feature justified the cost to the project. No one. Absolutely no one.”

Oh, how right they were.

Update: Corrected byline reference to Austin Carr per this tweet.

  1. Or Austin Carr. The main byline is attributed to Carr, but there’s a little one next to the main body text that suggests McCracken wrote this piece. ↩︎

  2. I’d argue that they still don’t, really, but that’s just a guess. ↩︎