Amazon Entices Devs with Bounty, but the Risk May Not be Worth it

Eric Z
Jun. 23 2014, 02:51PM EDT

Amazon is daring developers to put two SDKs to use and write applications for its Fire Phone. The SDKs provide developers with the tools they need to access the Fire Phone's most interesting features, Dynamic Perspective and Firefly. Before you rush over to Amazon's website to download the SDKs, it's worth putting some thought into the potential for return on investment here.

Mobile developers' attention has been in high demand ever since Apple debuted the iTunes App Store in 2008. Apple ushered in a new era for app writers, who were quick to realize they could make a buck or two by selling apps through the App Store. Google, Palm, BlackBerry and Microsoft later joined Apple with their own efforts, and the app bonanza really took off. Both Apple and Google claim to have more than 1 million apps in their respective app stores. Microsoft is a distant third with about 200,000. Palm is now dead and buried, and BlackBerry (for all intents and purposes) is nearly a goner.

These days, developers have no shortage of opportunities when it comes to platforms for which to create content. Android and iOS represent the two largest — and surest — targets thanks to their popularity and wide appeal. Apple sells tens of millions of iPhones each quarter, and Google's numbers often triple those put up by Apple. Earlier this month Apple showed off tons of new tools tailor-made for developers. It went so far as to debut a programming language, called Swift, to further entice developers to hop on the iOS train. This week, Google will do the same at its annual I/O developer conference. APIs will abound.

In addition to smartphones, developers can target tablets, wearables, Internet of Things devices, and myriad other gizmos and doodads. What makes Amazon and the Fire Phone so special as to warrant developers' time?

Amazon's SDKs and their APIs target specific aspects of the Fire Phone. Dynamic Perspective is Amazon's gimmicky system for recognizing the human face and its location relative to the device itself. It does this through four cameras placed on the front of the phone that are aided by infrared to help with focus, even in the dark. It's easy to consider a few possible ways to add Dynamic Perspective into apps, such as enhanced cameras for automated selfies, mapping/navigation and games. The Firefly SDK taps into the Fire Phone's hardware and software features for recognizing real-world objects and performing image-based searches for those objects. Amazon wasn't clear in describing just how far developers can go with the SDKs. One thing is certain, however: Apps developed with Dynamic Perspective and Firefly will only work on the Fire Phone.

This raises the question about developers' willingness to support a single device.

Amazon is entering the smartphone market at an interesting time. Apple and Google have won as far as smartphone apps are concerned, of that there's no doubt. Both are primed to tackle the wearables space in the near future, too. Microsoft has spent years pushing Windows Phone, and developers still haven't given it the support it deserves. The same is true of BlackBerry's BBOS 10 platform. Keep in mind, BlackBerry and Microsoft have tens of millions of active devices and users out there. So far, Amazon has none. (The Fire Phone doesn't go on sale until July 25.)  

There's an element of risk that's inherent in everything we do. If we're to believe Amazon's claims, developers can alter their existing Android apps to run on Fire OS with little effort. Anything developers create for Fire OS and the Fire Phone will run only on that device.

Amazon has decided to make developers' decision easy: It's offering a bounty for Fire Phone apps. Amazon will pay developers 500,000 Amazon coins (about $5,000) for each Fire Phone app written with the Dynamic Perspective SDK and the Amazon Home API. Amazon will pay developers for up to three Fire Phone apps, but the apps have to be paid — whether through a fee for download or via in-app advertising. Amazon coins don't amount to cash. Instead, they can be used to make purchases through Amazon's various content stores, such as games and apps.

Other companies, notably BlackBerry, have offered app bounties in the past. It's not the best way to attract quality developers and content. Further, Amazon isn't cutting checks; it's offering the equivalent of in-store credit.

Bottom line: If you want to earn $5,000 to $15,000 in Amazon credit, go ahead and write one to three apps for the Fire Phone. Beyond that initial reimbursement, it's hard to say what more Fire Phone apps will earn. If you're serious about earning a living by writing applications, it might be best to stick with the established platforms.

Eric Z I am a journalist who covers the mobile telecommunications industry. I freelance for Programmable Web and other online properties.

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