By Darren Murph
on 6.25.14
☲☰CRYPTED
Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ⌘+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but we promise it’ll all be in plain english. Continuing on from his work on the first two issues (let’s call those a beta) is writer Darren Murph, the former Managing Editor of Engadget and a Guinness World Record holder for number of blog posts published. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.
Full Disclosure: The author currently works with Weber Shandwick, of which Amazon is a client. His thoughts here are independent of Amazon and entirely his own.

The modern smartphone era began in 2007, with Apple’s original iPhone ushering in the form factor and general usability characteristics that have guided every smartphone since. As much that has changed in the years since, much has remained the same. We’re all now intimately familiar with pinch-to-zoom, pull-to-refresh, swiping left to right, and toggling notification windows by dragging our finger across a multitouch panel. A few phones have attempted to shake things up — Kyocera’s dual-screened Echo and Sony Ericsson’s controller-infused Xperia Play come to mind — but none of those outliers ever changed global perception.

Instead, it appears a phone from a company that sells me granola bars and laundry detergent may have cracked the question of what the next major innovation would be in the usability universe.

With this month’s Amazon Fire Phone introduction, the expectations of what a smartphone can and should provide have changed. Forget the bill of materials and Android version for a moment — folks willing to spend upwards of $500 for a smartphone have dozens upon dozens of options that all do mostly the same thing. Email, photos, Instagram, buying stuff you don’t need on eBay –in a relatively short time frame, all of those tremendously exciting items have been reduced to baseline expectations. It goes without saying that the $649 Fire Phone ($749 for a 64GB rendition) does all of the basic things you’d expect. But what matters to you is the sea change that its arrival signals in two critical areas.

A phone from a company that sells me granola bars and laundry detergent may have cracked the next major innovation in usability.

For starters, the Fire Phone is the first smartphone that ships with an always-on on-demand assistance service. Siri may be able to tell you who won the latest Giants game, but Amazon’s Mayday service is another beast entirely. Every phone will allow its owner to tap the Mayday button at any time, and within 15 seconds, an honest-to-goodness human being will show up on the display in video form. Their job? To answer any question you have about your phone, be it an app installation or a usage inquiry. To boot, the 24/7 service is completely free.

In a world that has continually slid towards outsourcing and cost cutting on the consumer satisfaction front, such an inclusion is more than a breath of fresh air — it’s almost outrageous. When’s the last time you saw customer service offered up as a selling point to a smartphone, let alone an onboard technician?

The entire notion reminds me of the approach Apple has taken in its retail efforts. Every Apple store has a Genius Bar in the back. In a nutshell, Apple hires highly qualified technicians — and pays them handsomely — to hang around and answer questions from users and prospective customers for no fee. It’s a massive money loser for Apple, and it’s essentially impossible to quantify the return on investment. But it’s the right thing to do. Many Apple loyalists that I know specifically cite the Genius Bar as a reason that they continue to buy Apple gear. In fact, it’s stunning to me that Apple missed out on an opportunity to translate the Genius Bar to the phone. Though, with Mayday’s arrival, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it integrated in the future.

The second item of import is Amazon’s take on user interaction. Instead of trying to make pinches quicker, response times lower, and gestures more accurate, the company jammed four cameras on the front panel in a reimagining of how users might interact with their phone. The longevity and enjoyability of using cameras to augment a user interface (they call it “dynamic perspective”) remains to be seen, but it has no doubt given other phone makers pause.

Regardless of how the Fire Phone fits into the broader smartphone landscape, it’s invigorating to see an outsider (to this segment, anyway) trying its hand at something new. And not just new for the sake of novelty. We need every major phone manufacturer thinking about the future of mobile usability, and if it’s Amazon pushing everyone else to innovate, I’ll take it.

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