In smartphones, there are features, and there's flash. The Amazon Fire phone has its share of both: The quasi-3D display is pretty compelling, but the jury is still out on how much of a novelty it is.
An undoubtedly important Fire phone feature for everyday users, however, is the fact that you get unlimited cloud storage for all the photos you take with it.
Offering free, unlimited photo storage for every photo you take on a smartphone is unprecedented. Although many apps offer automatic photo (and sometimes video) uploads, there's usually either a storage limit (go over it and you start paying) or some other caveat (such as a maximum resolution).
At 1 terabyte (1,000GB) of free storage, Flickr comes pretty close to unlimited for most practical purposes. But it doesn't come preloaded on any phones — you need to download the app and register.
Amazon is the first smartphone vendor to offer free, out-of-the-box cloud storage for every single photo you ever take with the phone. It's a very consumer-friendly move — and while Amazon's competitors have been inching in that direction, no one else has taken the plunge.
Picture this slippery slope
The reason is simple: It would be very easy to abuse such a feature. Cloud backup for smartphone photos is meant to back up photos actually taken with the phone. But the camera roll on a smartphone also needs to be accessible by other apps (indeed, Apple recently announced it would make the iPhone's camera roll even more connectable than it already is in iOS 8 to satisfy developer desires).
Many of those apps are essentially bridges between the phone and a wireless-enabled camera. That way, you can take high-quality photos with, say, a DSLR, and relay them (either via the camera's own Wi-Fi or an Eye-Fi card) to your device so you can then share them on services such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and all other digital communities where people share photos.
A photo service that grants unlimited free storage (as Amazon's purportedly does) opens the door to gaming the systemA photo service that grants unlimited free storage (as Amazon's purportedly does) opens the door to gaming the system — it's a relatively simple exercise to ensure every photo you take from any camera is uploaded to the service.
This is a photo archivist's dream: all photos — whether RAW, JPEG or anything else — all stored in the cloud, forever, at no charge.
Even Flickr charges for such a service (you needed to have the now locked-down Flickr Pro to go truly unlimited). Amazon doesn't. The company's FAQ on the subject doesn't reveal any fine-print caveats, and when we asked Amazon directly, a company rep said there are no resolution or size restrictions, or any artificial storage limits.
While Amazon will monitor for potential abuse, it expects the majority of Fire phone owners will fall within a "normal range of usage."
Is so-called abuse even something to fear, though? The multiple-camera scenario is certainly bending the rules, but given how few people would actually partake in it and the relative cheapness of cloud storage, Amazon can probably afford to absorb the outliers who will take advantage of its free service.
And given the lack of other tools, Amazon's photo cloud probably won't challenge Flickr for the attentions of professional photographers.
Now that Amazon has dived into free photo storage, will its competitors step up?
Apple has already outlined its plans for iCloud Photo Library — and although its rates are cheap, they're not free. Google already backs up all your photos to Google+ for free, but not at full resolution. The company will have an opportunity to respond at Google I/O next week.
Microsoft may be the company best positioned to match Amazon's offer. Windows Phone still has relatively low market share compared with iOS and Android, and the company has a strong cloud platform in Azure and OneDrive.
Given the fact that the draw of many Windows Phones is the camera, Microsoft could earn a lot of customer loyalty by guaranteeing that all photos are automatically backed up, for free.
One thing's for sure: It will take a while before video follows photos into unlimited-storage territory. There's almost no upper limit to how much space a video can take up. Guaranteeing that every video gets stored — no matter how long or how high-res — is going to take generational jumps in storage and connection speeds.
But for now, Amazon's offering has no equivalent, and it solves a big pain point for consumers. Who hasn't needed to delete a bunch of old photos to clear out space on their phone? Amazon has pointed the way to a photo-friendly future, and it would be surprising if the rest of the tech world doesn't follow sooner or later.
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