Tomorrow, Amazon unveils its entry into the smartphone arena, a long-rumored device that supposedly uses eye-tracking tech to create the first 3D smartphone display. BloombergBusinessweek spoke to some of Amazon's mad scientists for the inside story on Lab126, the skunkworks tasked with making the 3D phone a reality.
As Brad Stone (author of The Everything Store, a warts-and-all biography of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) writes, Lab126 isn't just responsible for getting Amazon into the smartphone world. It's a workshop for hardware imagineers, blue-sky tinkerers chasing ideas for their own sake.
Many Amazon watchers struggle to explain just why the online retailer and cloud services provider is in the risky business of making hardware in the first place. That's the wrong question to ask. Lab126 is in the business of asking: Why the heck not? Fueled by his pride in Amazon's inventiveness and his stubborn refusal to cede even an inch of the tech landscape to other companies, Bezos provides much of the motivation at Lab126, pushing it to develop mainstream hardware devices, as well as a variety of so-called "science projects," many of which have yet to see the light of day.
One group at Lab126, for example, is working on a device that projects a computer image onto any surface. A second is developing a wireless speaker that responds to voice commands. Apparently there are many more. Lab 126 insiders whisper about a credit-card reading device similar to Square, which could help propel Amazon's fledgling payments business, plus a remarkably thin upcoming version of the Kindle Paperwhite, code-named Ice Wine.
The strategy seems to be working: recent Lab126 debuts include Fire TV and Amazon Dash, devices that may not seem like core Amazon offerings, but which ensure that users will stay loyal to The Everything Store in the same way as Kindle e-reader users and Prime buyers.
And now tomorrow, Amazon will add its project phone, codenamed Duke, to that list. Previous reports indicate it'll bear some version of the Kindle name (Kindle Phone?), with a 4.7-inch, 720p display and the aforementioned infrared head-tracking cameras powering the 3D display.
You've probably been hearing rumors about this phone for a long, long time—Lab126 has been working on it since as far back as 2009, and along the way the project has blown past several rumored release dates. Stone theorizes that at least part of the delay in the Amazon phone's rollout was to ensure that the Amazon Appstore has enough offerings to entice smartphone buyers into the Amazon ecosystem.
It's a trick Bezos has used before—he delayed the rollout of the original Kindle e-reader to make sure there were enough e-books available for buyers to download. We'll find out tomorrow just how much the Amazon phone adds to the Everything Store. [BloombergBusinessweek]