The Amazon Smartphone: Still Crazy, Still Non-Existent

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Rumors of an Amazon smartphone are back, and once again there’s talk of 3D imagery and eye-tracking.

The latest details, originally appearing on Hacker News and then partially corroborated by TechCrunch, claim that Amazon is working on two smartphones. One of them is inexpensive with basic software, and while the Hacker News post claims that it’s coming this year, Amazon has already that it won’t release a phone in 2013. TechCrunch says the release date has been shifting around, and may have just been pushed back to early next year.

Amazon’s other phone is more interesting from a technical standpoint. It reportedly has a camera on each corner of the phone that can detect the user’s head and eye movement, while filtering out movement by surrounding people. The software on the screen then creates a 3D perspective that shifts as you move and look around the phone, although the display itself is not 3D.

What’s the point, aside from coolness factor? According to TechCrunch, Amazon is experimenting with a way to scan real-world objects so users can then buy those products on Amazon’s website. If Amazon can expect users to buy more products while using the phone, it could help offset the price of the hardware. Whether people would want a phone centered on shopping is another question entirely.

The two reports are reminiscent of a Wall Street Journal story from May, which claimed that Amazon was building a pair of phones and an “audio-only streaming device.” One of those phones would have “a screen that allows for three-dimensional images without glasses,” the Journal reported, but details on the cheaper phone were scarce.

The standard crazy tech rumor disclaimer applies here: Companies build and test prototypes all the time. You may recall that Apple was testing a smaller iPad years before launching the iPad Mini, and one of the first iPhone prototypes was more like a tablet. To that end, even TechCrunch acknowledges that the quad-camera feature is experimental and costly, and that “it’s tough to imagine that making it to market.”

As for the cheaper phone, it seems more likely to happen in near future, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about it: How will Amazon bring the cost down? What will wireless carrier agreements look like? How will Amazon compete with advanced features like Google voice search on Android devices and Siri on the iPhone? And how would a low-cost Amazon phone gain traction in the United States when the carrier subsidy model already allows for free and cheap phones? Neither of the new reports answer any of these questions.

Having said all that, the deeper Amazon gets into the tablet business, the stranger it gets that Amazon has no other devices to round out the experience. The Amazon phone–and set-top box, or game console–does seem like a matter of time, even if we don’t know what the final shape of the products will be.