Amazon has refuted a report last week that claimed the company was considering offering a free smartphone. An Amazon spokesman said that it won’t be launching a smartphone this year, and if this hypothetical phone did come into existence, it “would not be free.”
Although free phones aren’t novel in the United States, where wireless carriers waive the cost on some phones in exchange for a wireless contract, the report claimed that no wireless service plan would be required. Instead, the report speculated that Amazon might have other requirements, such as a subscription to Amazon Prime. Even if that’s true, it appears that the phone itself would still cost some money.
This is not the first time that Amazon phone rumors haven’t quite panned out. A year ago, The Verge reported that the Amazon phone was “confirmed” and would be shown at a press event where the company’s new Kindle Fire tablets were set to debut. Amazon’s press event came and went without any mention of a smartphone. In 2011, one analyst claimed to know the actual tech specs and build costs for the rumored phone, due to launch at the end of 2012. The launch didn’t happen, and the rumored specs now seem outdated.
It’s fair to assume that Amazon will launch a smartphone at some point, especially now that Amazon is talking about the possibility. And even if it’s not free, Amazon could do some interesting things with wireless service and pricing. Consider, for example, how Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD tablet allowed users to buy a year of AT&T data for $50, or the fact that Amazon is reportedly testing its own cellular network. The most interesting thing about the rumored Amazon smartphone has always been the price potential.
As for features, Amazon still has some challenges to overcome. Whereas Kindle Fire tablets are all about consuming content, a good smartphone is geared toward communicating and finding information. That’s why we have essential apps like Google Maps, Gmail and voice search on Android phones, and Apple Maps, iMessage and Siri on the iPhone. To compete with the iPhone and Android phones, Amazon will need to build its own comparable apps and services. (Kindle Fire tablets use a modified version of Android, but do not include any Google apps.)
Amazon seems to recognize its weaknesses, and over the last couple of years has acquired the voice control app Evi, a couple of voice recognition firms and 3D mapping startup UpNext. But given that there’s no phone coming this year, it’s likely that Amazon still has more work to do.
A phone makes good business sense for Amazon, as it’ll be another way to hook people into Amazon apps and digital media. It just requires a set of apps and services that Amazon hasn’t built yet, and the wireless service element makes things even more complicated. Rumors should be treated with skepticism until specific launch details start piling up — that is, not until next year at the earliest.