In the summer of 2015, Don Driscoll, an associate professor of physics at Kent State University, was ready to renew his Amazon Prime membership. He noticed Amazon’s Fire Phone was on sale for $130 and included a year of Prime. He decided to purchase the phone — which only cost $30 more than an annual Prime subscription — as a backup.
Later, when his LG Leon screen cracked, he switched to the Fire Phone and has been using it ever since.
“Why am I still using the Fire Phone? I guess I am just a cheapskate,” he said. “My family has stayed with T-Mobile for so long despite numerous coverage issues because it is cheap…The only thing stopping me from getting a new phone is cost.”
Driscoll is a rare individual still using the Fire Phone, two years after the device’s dramatic unveiling by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at a special event in Seattle. The hotly-anticipated device turned out to be one of the biggest flops in the company’s history, largely attributed to its high initial price and gimmicky high-tech features that users didn’t actually want.
Bezos unabashedly admits to the failure, and even celebrates it as an indication of Amazon’s willingness to experiment and make big bets. “If you think that’s a big failure, we’re working on much bigger failures right now — and I am not kidding,” he said recently. “Some of them are going to make the Fire Phone look like a tiny little blip.”
But what can be learned Amazon’s disastrous first foray into the smartphone market? For answers, GeekWire tracked down people who are still using the Fire Phone, nearly two years later. We asked what they love and hate about the phone, why they’re still using it, and what it would take to get them to buy an Amazon smartphone again.
For starters, the Fire Phone holdouts agreed that Amazon tried to do too much with the phone. Driscoll, for example, has turned off all of the motion-control features — like “shake-for-notification” and “tilt-to-scroll” — on the Fire Phone.
He continues to use the 3D effect, but says it is only noticeable on the lock screen. The 3D effect is part of the Fire Phone’s flagship feature, Dynamic Perspective. Amazon developed the technology using four front-facing cameras and a gyroscope, creating the impression of depth by changing the users’ perspective depending on their orientation to the screen. Dynamic Perspective generated a lot of buzz in advance of the phone’s rollout in the summer of 2014. But once the Fire Phone was released, the feature drew criticism as a gimmick designed to distract from the device’s shortcomings.
Firefly, another of the phone’s unique features, also received mixed reviews. The tool recognizes text, sounds, and objects, then lets users buy recognized items through Amazon.com. A Wired review, published a few months after the phone’s release called Firefly “just plain creepy, too close to advertising.”
But for Fire Phone user Emily Bulger, a student in Covington, Wash., the tool is actually one of the main reasons she still uses the Fire Phone.
“The feature of the Fire Phone that I use the most often is definitely Firefly,” she said. “I use that all the time, mostly to identify music, and I find it very handy. The feature that I hate is the tilting the top down to bring up the notifications page, as it constantly gets in the way when I am just barely moving the phone, or showing someone something.”
Bulger bought the Fire Phone in September of 2014. Like Driscoll, she was attracted to the heavily discounted price. Ironically, experts — and even Amazon execs themselves — attribute the device’s failure to its initially high sticker price of $199 with a two-year AT&T contract.
“We didn’t get the price right,” said David Limp, Amazon vice president of devices, in an interview with Fortune. “I think people come to expect a great value, and we sort of mismatched expectations. We thought we had it right. But we’re also willing to say, ‘we missed.’ And so we corrected.”
But by the time Amazon corrected, it was already too late. Fire Phone sales tanked. Amazon took a $170 million charge against earnings and said it was sitting on $83 million worth of unsold Fire Phone inventory. In September 2015 Amazon.com stopped selling the device and confirmed it had finally sold out of the phone.
“We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock,” reads the Fire Phone Amazon listing, a decidedly melancholy resignation for a product in which the company once placed so much hope.
As Fire Phone sales plummeted, so did the phone’s functionality. Amazon expected developers to create enough third-party apps to suit consumers’ needs but the demand wasn’t there.
“The Amazon AppStore is terrible,” said Driscoll. “The problem is that most of the Fire OS features require purpose-built apps from the developer that utilize the Amazon API,” said Driscoll. “I guess Amazon overestimated its market influence, because without developer adoption, all of the standout features have gone to waste.”
Lackluster app options eventually pushed Rebecca Yeatman, an IT Program Manager at SanMar Corp, to abandon her Fire Phone. She was using the device until about a month ago.
“My FitBit app stopped working,” she said. “The Fire phone was never officially a supported device, but the FitBit app worked for a long time.”
Like Driscoll and Bulger, Yeatman was originally attracted to the Fire Phone’s heavily discounted price.
So, will Amazon learn from the flop, adjust the price point, and try again? It’s possible, but doesn’t seem likely in the near future.
Around the same time Amazon stopped selling the Fire Phone, The Wall Street Journal reported “dozens” of the device’s engineers were laid off. Rumors have swirled around Lab126, the internal research and development group that designed the phone, since its flop in 2014. Amazon reportedly began restructuring Lab126 in January 2015.
And yet, it’s hard to believe that a company so hungry to break into new markets would abandon the smartphone space after one failed attempt. Amazon has invested heavily in its devices in recent years, most notably the Echo smart speaker and Alexa, the AI personality that powers it. Alexa is wildly popular and quickly gaining new skills and expanding to other devices. Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri have found homes in smartphones. Could Alexa give new life to a second Amazon smartphone?
In January of this year, technology news site The Information reported that Amazon is building out software partnerships with Android phone makers. Rumors suggest Amazon is considering creating Android devices with Amazon services. It’s unclear what the ultimate goal is for Amazon, but the report suggests the company may consider trying again.
Bulger and Yeatman both said they’d be open to trying a new Amazon phone — if the price was competitive. Driscoll, for his part, remains loyal to the Fire Phone. His device just received an upgrade from Fire OS 4.6.6 to 18.104.22.168.
“At least they haven’t totally abandoned it,” he said.
Writer and reporter Madeline Vuong contributed to this story.