90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Amazon's Fire Phone Enters The Smartphone Wars

Amazon joins Apple and Google in the smartphone business. We’ll look at what everybody wants to build around your phone.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduces the new Amazon Fire Phone. (AP)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduces the new Amazon Fire Phone. (AP)

Amazon, out with its Fire phone last week. Six cameras. A 3D-ish screen. And above all, designed to let you shop ‘til you drop. Point this camera at just about any product or movie or let it hear any song and it will identify and sell you that product, pretty much instantly. If that’s what you want in a smartphone, Amazon is ready to deliver. Of course, Apple and Google and Samsung and more have their own dreams for your smartphone. And they’re all about a lot more than phone calls. This hour On Point: smartphones and mobile computing taking over the world.

- Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Timothy Lee, Senior Editor at Vox. (@binarybits)

Elizabeth Woyke, Technology journalist for Money Magazine, Fast Company and Inc. Author of the forthcoming book, “The Smartphone: Anatomy of an Industry.” (@ewoyke)

Benedict Evans, mobile analyst for the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. (@BenedictEvans)

From Tom’s Reading List

CNET: Beyond Google: Apple, Samsung, and the quest for control – If Samsung, Apple, and any other players hope to control their own destinies, they’ll ultimately need to take the reins and control their total user experience, or remain at Google’s mercy.

Vox: Google wants to reinvent transportation, Apple wants to sell you fancy headphones – The future’s going to belong to companies with the will and the ability to take big, uncertain risks on big projects.

Wired: Everything you need to know about Amazon’s 3D smartphone - The phone, which is likely to have a 3D display and be exclusive to AT&T in the US, has been described by the New York Times as a project to “close any remaining gap between the impulse to buy and the completed act”.

Book Excerpt From “The Smartphone” by Elizabeth Woyke

1. From the Simon to the BlackBerry

Martin Cooper with Motorola’s Dyna-Tac prototype in 1973 (Martin Cooper) On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper dialed his way into history. As the general manager of Motorola’s systems division, he had flown to New
York City to unveil a prototype of the world’s first handheld cellphone. The 28-ounce phone, which had a long antenna, a thin body, and a protruding bottom “lip,” making it resemble a boot, isn’t sleek by current standards, but it was revolutionary. Until 1973 a mobile phone required so much power it had to be tethered to a car’s electrical system or an attaché case containing a huge battery. The phone that Cooper and his team had developed—the DynaTAC—fit right in the palm of his hand.

Reporters had gathered at the Hilton hotel in Midtown Manhattan to see the new phone. Cooper was nervous. “There were thousands of parts in the thing; it was hard to keep it running,” he recalls. “We had people at the hotel still working at midnight [the night before] to make sure the phone would be able to make calls.”1 Cooper got lucky. The phone functioned flawlessly that day, both before the press conference when he placed a call from the bustling street in front of a reporter, and later at the event, where he made a number of calls, even letting one young journalist dial her mother in Australia. “At that time, not everyone in the world thought people needed cellphones,” he said, “but the reporters were quite enthusiastic.” Today Cooper is universally acknowledged as the creator of the cellphone and the first person to make a cellphone call in public. His story gave the world a straightforward starting point for understanding cellphone history.

In contrast, there is no consensus on the smartphone’s origins. A number of people think it was born in 2007, when Apple cofounder Steve Jobs proudly showed off the first iPhone at the Macworld conference in San Francisco. But what many people either forget or do not know is that phones with smartphone features had already been on
sale for more than a decade.

Some experts believe smartphones emerged from cellphones when manufacturers began squeezing sophisticated programs and Web browsing features into their handsets. Others say personal digital assistants (PDA), with their touchscreens and open operating systems, were the real progenitors of the smartphone. A third camp thinks pagers and messaging devices, including early BlackBerrys, paved the way by introducing mobile data and e-mail to a broad audience.

The question hangs on how you define a smartphone. Generally speaking, a smartphone distinguishes itself from a cellphone by running on an open operating system that can host applications (apps) written by outside developers. The apps expand the phone’s functionality, giving it computer like capabilities, and can be downloaded and installed by users, not just pre-installed by smartphone companies.

Smartphones also have a number of built-in features that basic phones typically do not, including touchscreens that can sense multiple- finger swipes, high-definition displays, fully Internet-capable browsers, advanced software that automatically grabs new e-mails, and highquality cameras, music, and video players.

It took more than a decade to cram all these features into one handheld device. The earliest smartphones came from IBM, Nokia, Ericsson, Palm, and Research In Motion/BlackBerry. Though these phones pushed boundaries in the 1990s and early 2000s, they were all limited in some way, especially in their Internet and app access.
Most of these early smartphones were not sales hits. Some were famous flops. But all contributed to the smartphones we now carry in our pockets, whether they are iPhones, Android phones, Windows Phones, or BlackBerrys.

Copyright ©2014 by Elizabeth Woyke. This excerpt originally appears in forthcoming book The Smartphone published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • HonestDebate1

    I prefer dumb phones.

  • Matt MC

    I can’t wait for the Fire phone, especially the new app that gives you alerts about what Amazon products you should buy. Wait, that’s the whole phone! Yippie yip yee!

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Why do these loafs announce these devices then make the consumer wait 2 months before they can order? Are they trying to make me salivate or something? It’s not going to work. In two months I’ve already moved on or forgotten about it.

    • menotq

      sadly if you keep feeding the monster, please don’t be surprised when he bites your ass.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    Most ‘smart’ phones are beautiful to look at, but then we cover them up with plastic cases.

    They have features that make them useful for the users, but the myriad ways that information is handed to marketing leeches.

    Embedded programs that we cannot uninstall or disable.

    Sealed cases with zero ability to repair or upgrade.

    We must have open source, fully repairable and upgradable ‘smart’ phones; like Phone Bloks or Fairphone.

    • tbphkm33

      I agree. With the price of smart phones, consumers should be able to depend on them running at least 5 to 7 years. Along with the ability to upgrade components. Unfortunately, consumers are used to Window’s computers and do not think twice about having to replace them every few years.

  • AC

    what is the name of the cheap phone from china that has a spy virus built in?

    • streetglide

      Hu yu hai ding

  • Kathy

    The guest described Amazon as being a free rider on top of Android. I’d say the opposite. They’ve taken the Android OS and turned it into something far more consumer friendly. I’ve used several Android devices and none of them come close to the polish of the Kindle Fire.

    • N G

      yes but his point had to do with their use of Google Maps etc. which they didn’t develop

      • N G

        and more importantly aren’t paying for. since all businesses use other things they didn’t develop but in the past they somehow had to pay for them

  • streetglide

    Haven’t seen the new Amazon phone yet; but I am picturing becoming very, very tired of seeing an Amazon ad pop up every time I Goggle an actors name, geographical factoid, ingredients in a restaurant dish, etc.

    • The_Truth_Seeker(TM)

      They better provide a way to turn this off!

  • Scott B

    I try to buy on the local level. I’m a guitar player, and you can’t get the sound and feel of a guitar online. I can try 5 of the same guitar and one will have the right feel in my hands. Can’t get that on a phone.

    I was brought up with more respect for people earning their living with their store, than to walk into a shop, try things out, find the product I want, then order from Amazon or anyone else.

  • N G

    Amazon Netflix etc have done an amazing job of creating a sense of magically delivering things from the ether to you. I live near an excellent video store that is finally on the verge of its inevitable end. I have come to know and appreciate the knowledgeable and interesting staff that make the experience of browsing and renting an opportunity for a whole experience that goes beyond simply watching a movie. now if I switch to Netflix I will still actually be getting my DVDs after local employees pick and ship them but those employees are in a windowless unlabeled warehouse (to help maintain the illusion of magic delivery)where they maybe get 3 hours maybe get 14 hours on a given day. so from one perspective you could say as consumers we are saying hey staff that are serving us please we don’t just want you to be seen and not heard we want you to be not seen or heard. While I get the dubious benefit of immediate gratification you get to make less have the inconvenience of taking a bus 40 minutes out to the suburbs and have less dignity as a worker.and of course as soon as possible we will replace you with robots.

  • john hutchinson

    Web sales in general have been undermining our economy for over a decade now and naive visions of profit-making potentialities are final being realized as such. In our haste to embrace the new we have invested in a gun designed for efficiently shooting ourselves in the foot on a gigantic scale. We’ve been so slow to realize the inevitable effects of our investment in a realm of smoke and mirrors I fear we’ve past the tipping-point for the possibility of a healthy retail-based segment in our economy.

  • menotq

    When will the masses learn there are devastating consequences when you feed a monster. I do not shop at Walmart nor Amazon. Simple!

  • Coastghost

    Can’t Jeff Bezos do his Travolta-Saturday Night Fever impersonation WITHOUT being photographed? What a hipster.

  • J. Shumake

    Amazon is crucial to me as rheumatoid arthritis prevents me from running many errands and I live in a very poor consumer area. I don’t know what I would do without Amazon support and service.

  • Gareth Heatley

    The comments from the gentleman from East Connecticut who raised the issue of loss of tax revenue when businesses are forced to close, was not addressed by the programme’s speakers and is of crucial importance. Google, Amazon, Ebay and similar internet enterprises are able to thrive and threaten local commerce because our governments (local and National) are way too slow to respond to this huge threat to communities and local businesses.

    Changes in the Tax laws regarding internet sales (eg. impose a 15% sales tax on ALL internet purchases regardless of location) would both slow down or stop this exponential growth in these types of commerce. The revenue raised could be directed back to the purchaser’s local districts or States.

    THEN pass a selection of laws that force these internet giants to pay their fair share of corporate tax and make off-shore registering of companies for the evasion of these taxes illegal. We must start using the very technology that has led to this commercial explosion to fight back – if we don’t, then, as the man said, it is very likely that local law enforcement, schools, road repairs, etc, will all fall into decay or disappear altogether. Individuals cannot make a difference, we are way past the tipping point for them to have any influence. Changes have to be made by government legislation – God help us with that!

    • Godzilla the Intellectual

      There never has been a level playing field. Big box stores did it first.

      Now this.

      Put the little guy out of business! It will force local businesses to focus on cottage industries, locally produced goods and services and the immediate purchase.

  • Rick Evans

    The comment about about ‘leveling the playing field’ and ‘loss of sales tax revenue caught my attention’. It’s certainly true that if brick and mortar stores contribute to the fire and police protection through tax levies then online retailers get an unfair advantage.

    There’s only one problem. Among brick and mortar retailers the field is not level. Local government has been handing out corporate welfare tax breaks like candy at a children’s Halloween party.

    Shop at a big box opened in the last 20 years and there’s a good chance the sales tax you pay goes to the corporate bottom line. Then there are the other taxes and fees exempted in exchange for a promise to create jobs.

    http://www.businessweek.com/small-business/dont-subsidize-big-boxes-at-local-shops-expense-09092011.html

    • Gareth Heatley

      Agreed Rick, But at least some of that aid comes back in the form of state sales tax, tax on employees earnings and the provision of utilities. No such benefits acrue from big onine retailers. Don’t get me wrong, I shop at amazon and especially Ebay – however I should, could and would be happy to pay sales tax on my purchases. If we don’t remove these huge advantages the big online retailers have through taxation – then they have not just an advantage but actually an incentive to keep expanding and eroding any local retailer’s customer base. It’s in everyone’s interest to control these trade.

      • Rick Evans

        “Agreed Rick, But at least some of that aid comes back in the form of state sales tax, tax on employees earnings”

        Online retailer employees are tax exempt? Do you pay taxes in every locality that buy your(company’s) products or services?

        Online warehouses pay no local property taxes?

        “…and the provision of
        utilities.”

        Huh?

  • Godzilla the Intellectual

    Get rid of corporate welfare. no more subsidies for coal and oil.

    Geothermal Power is the future!

  • methos1999

    As an engineer I always chuckle when I hear about phone companies talking about “high end materials” – particularly in this case when Bezos mentions CNC’d aluminum. There is nothing fancy about aluminum that has been CNC machined, in fact quite the opposite.

  • Godzilla the Intellectual

    Innovation and competition is innovation and competition. That’s business!

    There NEVER HAS been a level playing field!

  • Regular_Listener

    When I heard this phone was coming out, I was excited. “All right,” thought I, “a new phone from Amazon! It will be a disruptor – it will be cheap, and provide, at a lower cost, a lot of the same services that we consumers are now overpaying for.” Instead, they have released what looks like a pretty ordinary cell phone, plus some bells and whistles, and a much closer link to the Amazon shopping world. A “shopping machine” as Mr. Evans said. The phone’s price is about average, from what I can see. Bleh.

    Amazon revolutionized shopping by making everything available in one place at low prices. The Amazon membership thing is pretty brilliant, and so is the free shipping on orders over $35. But some of their moves since then have not been so powerful. The Kindle Fire is a mediocre tablet, and I’m glad I got an Android instead.

    This phone looks like a loser.

ONPOINT
TODAY
Aug 27, 2014
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, right, as Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, center, looks at them, prior to their talks after after posing for a photo in Minsk, Belarus, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. (AP)

Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s leader meet. We’ll look at Russia and the high voltage chess game over Ukraine. Plus, we look at potential US military strikes in Syria and Iraq.

Aug 27, 2014
The cast of the new ABC comedy, "Black-ish." (Courtesy ABC)

This week the Emmys celebrate the best in television. We’ll look at what’s ahead for the Fall TV season.

RECENT
SHOWS
Aug 26, 2014
Matthew Triska, 13, center, helps Alex Fester, 10, to build code using an iPad at a youth workshop at the Apple store on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, in Stanford, Calif.  (AP)

Educational apps are all over these days. How are they working for the education of our children? Plus: why our kids need more sleep.

 
Aug 26, 2014
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, right, speaks with Ady Barkan of the Center for Popular Democracy as she arrives for a dinner during the Jackson Hole Economic Policy Symposium at the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park near Jackson, Wyo. Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014.  (AP)

Multi-millionaire Nick Hanauer says he and his fellow super-rich are killing the goose–the American middle class — that lays the golden eggs.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Poutine Whoppers? Why Burger King Is Bailing Out For Canada
Tuesday, Aug 26, 2014

Why is Burger King buying a Canadian coffee and doughnut chain? (We’ll give you a hint: tax rates).

More »
1 Comment
 
Why Facebook And Twitter Had Different Priorities This Week
Friday, Aug 22, 2014

There’s no hidden agenda to the difference between most people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds this week. Just a hidden type of emotional content and case use. Digiday’s John McDermott explains.

More »
Comment
 
Our Week In The Web: August 22, 2014
Friday, Aug 22, 2014

On mixed media messaging, Spotify serendipity and a view of Earth from the International Space Station.

More »
Comment