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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos holds up the new Amazon Fire Phone at a launch event, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos holds up the new Amazon Fire Phone at a launch event, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Amazon Fire Phone to lure buyers into its shopping world Add to ...

Amazon.com Inc. has unveiled a shopping cart in the skin of a smartphone.

Hoping to further entice customers to partake in its sprawling online storefront, the world’s largest online retailer announced on Wednesday the release of the Fire Phone. The 4.7-inch smartphone marks the latest in a long line of Amazon hardware, which now includes e-readers, tablets and a set-top box called Fire TV.

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And, like those devices, the Fire Phone is designed primarily to point consumers back to Amazon’s digital store at every opportunity, using state-of-the art software that instantly connects users to the stores where they may purchase just about anything they can point the smartphone’s camera at.

“[Amazon] understands that it’s a relationship provider,” said James McQuivey, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “It has music in that relationship, movies in that relationship … they want to make sure you never, ever think of something you want and can’t act on that immediately.”

Amazon’s new phone begins shipping in the United States, exclusively through AT&T, on July 25, at a price of $300 (U.S.) on a two-year contract.

Beyond its industrial design – which is generally similar to many other flat touchscreen devices – and its hardware specifications, the Fire Phone is differentiated from its competitors primarily through software.

The phone’s most high-profile feature, called FireFly, is designed partly to make it much easier for consumers to quickly purchase almost anything they see in the world around them. Using the phone’s camera, the FireFly software lets users point the device at just about any product, with software reading the bar code to derive information about the shirt, book, TV or whatever else is captured. FireFly can also do the same with video and audio content, leading users to Amazon’s massive digital entertainment stores.

“It’s addictive and an absolute breakthrough,” said AT&T Inc. mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega, who joined Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at the launch event. “I’m going to buy a whole lot more things now.”

FireFly also uses an advanced algorithm to derive information from the real world. For example, pointing the phone’s camera at a poster or a business card allows FireFly to automatically recognize and collect information, such as phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

So central is FireFly to the Amazon phone that the Seattle-based company gave the software its own dedicated hardware button, similar to the volume controls.

In designing the Fire Phone, Amazon also made extensive use of its existing products and services. The smartphone incorporates a technology called ASAP – currently found on Amazon’s Fire TV hardware – which guesses what video content a user is likely to watch next, and automatically prebuffers it in the background.

Fire Phone users will also receive unlimited photo storage on Amazon’s massive cloud infrastructure, and a year of membership to Amazon Prime (a subscription service that offers faster shipping and exclusive free content) when they buy the device.

The Fire Phone also includes some hardware innovations – chiefly, a 3D-simulation mechanism. Using multiple cameras that track a user’s face, the phone allows for perspective-shifting and some hands-free user interface controls. For example, a user can scroll through a page by tilting the device.

With its own smartphone, Amazon becomes better-equipped to compete with the handful of tech giants trying to create A-to-Z digital ecosystems – including Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

Of those companies, only Amazon doesn’t have its own operating system – the company instead relies on heavily customized versions of Google’s Android software. Still, Amazon has sought to all but obliterate that distinction by building its own flavours of the Android app store and expending considerable energy on convincing developers to build apps for that marketplace.

In many ways, the strategy has proven effective – so much so that other companies are now looking to capitalize on Amazon’s success. On Wednesday, BlackBerry Ltd. announced it has entered into a licensing agreement that will bring Android’s app store – and some 200,000 apps – to BlackBerry users this fall.

“You will be able to access popular apps such as Groupon, Netflix, Pinterest, Candy Crush Saga and Minecraft,” the company told users on its official blog. “We’re excited to be working with Amazon to deliver the apps and content that you’ve been looking for. It’s an exciting new day for BlackBerry 10 device owners.”

BlackBerry shares jumped about 3 per cent on the news. Amazon shares were also up about 2.7 per cent on Wednesday.

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