Amazon Officially Announces ‘Fire’ Smartphone

Amazon has sold groceries, clothing, and the books that launched its online empire nearly 20 years ago. Now, the ecommerce giant has added a smartphone to the mix.

After years of rumors, leaks, and rampant speculation, Amazon unveiled its first phone prototype Wednesday.

The device, which Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has dubbed the Fire Phone, spans 4.7 inches. It can track the face of a user as they move and display the 3-D pictures that Amazon hopes will set its phone apart from an already crowded field of devices scrambling for an edge.

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On Wednesday, Bezos expounded on the sophisticated technology that made 3-D images possible without forcing users to wear glasses. The phone has to keep tabs on the location of the user’s face at all times, even when it phone moves around. It is therefore outfitted with multiple cameras that can identify faces from different angles.

Commentators Monday described the images like holograms, as they float on different levels both above and underneath screen level. By moving your head, you should be able to see the image projected on the lock screen move around.

The phone also has a camera on the back with a 13-megapixel sensor, which boasts “image stabilization” to counteract the natural trembling of a hand taking a photo. Bezos said the camera should be able to capture light and dark better than its competitors, the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy.

Users may never again have to delete photos from their phones. Bezos announced Wednesday that the Fire takes advantage of Amazon’s cloud to get free unlimited photo storage.

Its headphones are designed to avoid tangling. The earbuds are built on flat cables, rather than the thin round ones that accompany Apple products. The buds themselves are magnetic to make the buds attach together.

The phone is equipped with traditional apps, such as Pandora, but it also includes some unique to Amazon. One such app, Firefly, lets customers take photos of products, which the program can then recognize and add to an Amazon shopping cart.

The recognition service also extends to music, TV shows, and artwork. Firefly can identify songs from a few bars of music or a TV episode from a short snippet. It then proceeds to automatically purchase the full song or show.

Users can also use Amazon support services, under the auspices of its “Mayday” program, for free.

The phone is the latest gadget developed and sold by Amazon to hit stores. The ecommerce company has begun to offer more new devices, such as the Kindle Fire tablet, which launched in September of 2011.

Data shows that owners of the Kindle purchase far more content on Amazon than they would otherwise. Amazon clearly hopes that the phone will do the same to boost its business.

The phone could also be a big win for AT&T, which will be the exclusive carrier of the phone for the foreseeable future. AT&T already provides the data plans available to owners of Amazon’s Kindle.

The news that AT&T would now be the only company to carry the Amazon phone was greeted by mixed reactions.

Shortly after the Wall Street Journal reported AT&T would be the exclusive carrier, T-Mobile CEO John Legere posted a series of vitriolic tweets, replete with hashtags like #yikes, that lampooned the AT&T deal.

His tirade speaks to the highly competitive environment that surrounds the smartphone industry, which has evolved into a both lucrative and cutthroat arms race.

Apple and Samsung now control a sizeable portion of the market, edging out many of their competitors, including Blackberry, Motorola, and Nokia.

The Fire Phone will be available starting on July 25.

The 32 gigabyte version will cost for $199.99 with a two-year AT&T contract, according to Amazon. A phone with higher storage capacity, 64 gigabytes, can be obtained for $299.99--again with a two-year contract.

Without the contract, the phone is far more expensive. It would cost $650 to purchase the phone alone.