Amazon's Firefly will flicker on iOS, Android

Amazon's Firefly will flicker on iOS, Android

Analysts agree that Amazon will extend the Firefly technology to apps for solid strategic reasons

Amazon has good reasons to turn Firefly loose on iOS and Android even though the technology is one of the selling points for its own Fire phone, analysts agreed.

"Amazon would absolutely benefit from Firefly on iOS and Android," said Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research. "The more Firefly functionality out there, the more things Amazon can sell."

Last week, Amazon unveiled its first smartphone, the Fire phone, touting two technologies again and again: Firefly and Dynamic Perspectives.

Firefly uses image, text and audio recognition to identify millions of products, as well as QR and bar codes, artwork, movies, TV shows, music, email and Web addresses, and phone numbers. By pointing the phone's camera at a product, CEO Jeff Bezos demonstrated, Firefly IDs products that Amazon sells, then add them to an account holder's wish list or purchase them immediately.

Amazon has emphasized Firefly by building in a dedicated button into the Fire that launches the app.

Most analysts saw Firefly as an attempt to reduce purchasing friction, particularly from mobile, where Amazon has made insufficient progress even as more time shifts to smartphones, and to a lesser degree, tablets. That, in turn was viewed as a step toward the goal of boosting sales, especially those to Prime members, who buy significantly more -- some claim more than twice as much annually -- than the average non-Prime customer.

Other experts, however, saw it differently. Ben Thompson, an independent analyst at Stratechery, contended that Fire, and by extension Firefly, was a way to "more fully monetize a segment of its broad base of e-commerce customers" -- that segment being Prime -- but also to capture customers and if not lock them into the Amazon ecosystem, then build stronger ties of loyalty between those big spenders and itself.

But with Fire phone sales expectations so low -- few analysts were bullish on Amazon's ability to scratch out more than minimal numbers, either in units or share -- that strategy needs help.

Enter Firefly for Android and iOS.

"Knowing Amazon's business model, there's no reason why Amazon would keep Firefly exclusive," said Sameer Singh of Tech-Thoughts.

Others agreed. "It only makes sense Amazon would extend many of these features to other devices too, through Firefly apps on iOS and Android proper," wrote Jan Dawson, principal analyst at Jackdaw, in a piece last week on Techpinions.

In an interview, Dawson pointed out that Amazon has already put some pieces of Firefly into place on iOS. "Amazon has had versions of its shopping app that acted similarly on the iPhone," said Dawson.

In February, Amazon added UPC code and product packaging recognition to the Amazon App on iOS; the technology, dubbed "Flow," had come from, an Amazon subsidiary, and been the foundation of an earlier app launched in late 2011. The Android version of Amazon's app offers some similar features, including image search -- of product photographs snapped in a store -- and bar code recognition.

Dawson imagined Firefly apps on Android and iOS would be second-class compared to the Fire phone. "Amazon's taking advantage of the hardware," he noted. "The [Fire] phone was designed with this in mind."

"Firefly [on other platforms] may not have all of the aspects on the Fire," echoed Rubin. "It might be difficult without whatever dedicated hardware is inside the Fire."

Singh wasn't so sure. "I don't see much of a hardware tie-in except for the Firefly button, so we could see the app on other platforms at any time," he said. "Maybe right after Fire phone's initial marketing blitz, unless [Amazon's] AT&T agreement gets in the way."

The faster Amazon issues a Firefly-enabled app for Android and iOS the better, said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "It's an advantage for them to have Firefly-enabled phones out there," Moorhead said. But not just to sell more products, virtual and physical, to Prime members.

Moorhead had a different interpretation of the Fire phone's mission, and it was all about Firefly's data acquisition capabilities.

"A device plus Firefly is a context-sucking machine to sell you more stuff," said Moorhead in an interview. "It's really about the data, and finding out more about you so they can sell you more things. That would be Nirvana for Google, to know everything about what you, your friends and family buy. But they're not trusted like Amazon."

Moorhead envisioned Firefly as a data miner, and so the more devices the app was on the more data Amazon could collect. That data could then to used by Amazon itself to pitch appropriate products to its customers -- either as in-app recommendations or in-app ads -- or Amazon might be even more ambitious. "Why not turn around and sell that [data] to advertisers or create their own [advertising] network?" Moorhead asked. "Whoever has the best data is the most valued company. It's why investors allow Amazon to make lower-than-average profits."

Some experts, convinced that the headwinds of iOS and Android, Samsung most notably, were too firmly established in the U.S. for Amazon to effectively compete in the smartphone market, questioned the sequence of launching the Fire before pushing Firefly onto other platforms.

"It seems backwards," asserted Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research. "The pool of iOS and Android is far larger, with millions of those devices available to Firefly. Amazon should have done it the opposite way, release Firefly for iOS and Android first, then the Fire phone."

Why? "Because it's all about Firefly for Amazon," Gottheil answered. "On Android and iOS, that would have driven business for Amazon."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is

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