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Bezos says Amazon not late to 'premium' smartphone game

Fire Phone faces stiff competition from iPhone 5S, Galaxy S5. But Amazon CEO says "wireless thing" just getting started.

Amazon shows off the Fire at the gadget's unveiling. James Martin/CNET

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos doesn't think his company's Fire Phone is a late entry into the smartphone business, despite the myriad devices already available. In fact, he thinks the e-commerce company is early.

"I think in the whole evolution of this, we're still pretty early. I don't want to judge before all the facts are in, but I think this wireless thing is going to be big," he told The New York Times after launching the Amazon Fire Phone on Wednesday.

When asked about the price tag -- $199 for 32GB and $299 for 64GB -- Bezos countered that the device is "a really premium phone."

The interview shed a bit more light on why Amazon has decided to tread into a highly competitive market, already dominated by Apple and Samsung. Several tidbits from Wednesday's announcement left folks scratching their heads, including the the cost of the phone and the company's exclusive deal with AT&T.

Bezos, who said his previous phone is from Samsung's Galaxy line, surprised people with a smartphone that not only had high-quality specs, including a quad-core processor and a 13-megapixel camera with full high definition video, but also a price to match. The phone starts at $199 on contract with AT&T for the 32GB model. Both the iPhone 5S and Galaxy S5 start at $199 for a 16GB model.

That said, the Fire Phone also comes with some unique features, including 3D mapping and imaging, the shopping-friendly object-recognition technology called Firefly, and a free year of Amazon's $99 Prime membership. Bezos must think these things set the phone apart.

"If we go back in time just five, six, seven years, we're talking about different players -- Nokia, Blackberry, and others," he said. "Things change very rapidly in this area."

Bezos was not shy about using the phone to generate more sales on Amazon's e-commerce platform. Firefly was clearly the phone's main attraction and is, simply put, a tool to make users buy products through Amazon. The feature can identify scanned objects and recognize songs and other audio; then call up the product for purchase. Coupled with the free Prime membership, Amazon has a device optimized for shopping.

"We make those actions very simple," Bezos said. "As we should. Guess what -- one of the things people want to do with their phones is buy stuff, from Amazon and in general. So helping people take care of their shopping tasks is an important job to do in any smartphone."