TIME Education

The Ambitious Plan to Teach 100,000 Poor Kids to Code

Kids Who Code
11-year-old Nuh Mahamud works on a computer at the Bridge Project, which provides educational opportunities for children living in public housing neighborhoods, in the South Lincoln area of Denver on Jan. 23, 2012. Yes We Code plans to partner with such existing organizations to focus specifically on preparing kids for careers writing computer code. Cyrus McCrimmon—Denver Post/Getty Images

#YesWeCode looks to close the coding inequality gap

Shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February 2012, liberal activist Van Jones was talking with his friend Prince—yes, that Prince—about the circumstances of the shooting.

“I think he made the observation,” Jones told TIME, “that when African-American young people wear hoodies people think they’re thugs, but when white kids wear hoodies you assume that they’re going to be dot-com billionaires,” a reference to the outerwear favored by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk. “We just started thinking: ‘Well, how do we turn that around?’”

Out of that spark was born Yes We Code, an ambitious initiative of Jones’ Rebuild the Dream organization aimed at preparing 100,000 low-income children for careers writing computer code. While good-paying blue-collar jobs continue to disappear in the U.S., computer science is a rare bright spot of opportunity for people without a college education. “This is another opportunity for people to make a really serious, solid middle-class income,” said Jones, a former environmental aide in the Obama Administration.

It’s an old yarn by now that computer science is one of the fastest-growing, highest-paying career paths in America. By 2020, half of all jobs in the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Math) fields will be in computing, according to the Association for Computer Machinery. The latest salary survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers says the average starting salary for computer science majors in 2014 is more than $61,000—just about $1,000 shy of the top earners, engineering grads.

Contrast that with the fact that computer science education in STEM has seen a decrease in enrollment in the last 20 years, with a particularly precipitous drop in the past decade as school districts have reconfigured curriculums to meet standards set by the No Child Left Behind initiative. Those students who do enroll in computer science are overwhelmingly white and male. In 11 states last year, not a single black student took the Computer Science Advanced Placement exam for college credit. That may not mean much in a place like Maine, but in Mississippi, where more than 37 percent of the population is black, the statistic takes on a whole new significance.

Put simply, many parts of the country have systematically reduced educational opportunities in the growing field of computer science for students who depend on the public school system. “It has become privileged knowledge,” said Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teacher’s Association. “The haves have continued to get access and the have-nots, however you want to define that, have not.”

There are dozens of organizations around the country working to address this disparity—Black Girls Code, Hack the Hood, and many others. What Yes We Code hopes to do is connect those groups with the tools and resources to radically scale up. “There’s a ton of wasted genius in low-opportunity communities,” Jones said, adding that Yes We Code does not exist solely to serve black children. “African-American, Latino, low-income Asian, Native American, Appalachian. We aren’t only for African-Americans,” he said.

Beginning with a launch at the 20th annual Essence Festival in New Orleans on July 4—Prince agreed to headline the event on the condition that Yes We Code be included in the festivities—the group will unveil its website to connect coding education organizations with low-income pupils. At the festival, Yes We Code will also launch a fundraising drive to amass a $10 million scholarship fund to pay for the cost of coding education for kids who can’t afford it on their own. (Disclosure: The Essence Festival is a production of Essence magazine, which is owned by Time Inc., the parent company of TIME.)

The cadre of young, poor kids Jones hopes to help teach to write code will not be young forever and Jones hopes they won’t be poor forever either, creating a new generation of role models he sees as lacking in their communities today.

“Athletes, or rappers, or hustlers or President Obama. That’s it. All four of those are very hard and unlikely pathways for success,” Jones said. “We just haven’t really been putting a spotlight on this opportunity.” Yes We Code intends to turn on that spotlight.

“The future,” Jones told TIME, ”is being written in code.”

TIME wireless carriers

T-Mobile’s Unlimited Music Streaming Is the Worst for Net Neutrality

Legere
T-Mobile CEO John Legere speaks during an event in Seattle on Wednesday, June 18, 2014 Matthew Williams -- Bloomberg / Getty Images

"Music freedom" looks like a benefit for subscribers, and that's the most dangerous part.

Most things that T-Mobile has done over the last year have made me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but I felt a pit in my stomach on Wednesday when the carrier announced that certain streaming music services won’t count against users’ data limits.

Instead of treating all music services equally, T-Mobile has decided that the most popular streaming music services should get better treatment. If you have a limited data plan on T-Mobile, you won’t come any closer to your monthly cap when using Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, iTunes Radio, iHeartRadio, Slacker Radio and Samsung Milk Music.

This is the most insidious type of net neutrality violation, because it’s being pitched as a benefit. Most users stand to gain from the free data, so they may not even care about the slippery slope they’re on.

T-Mobile is well aware that it’s picking winners and losers, so it’s telling users to vote on other services that they’d like to make the cut. This by itself is messed up — why should I have to petition T-Mobile to give preferential treatment to a particular music service? — but it also underscores why net neutrality is so important. New or obscure streaming music services will remain at a disadvantage for as long as T-Mobile doesn’t recognize them. This, in turn, makes it harder for these services to take off, enforcing a vicious cycle.

What’s really scary is that some tech pundits don’t even see this as a problem. Ross Rubin, an analyst whose opinions I usually respect, wrote on Twitter that the free music streaming is “not really a net neutrality issue” because T-Mobile isn’t favoring any one provider or setting up a “fast lane” for chosen services. But with wireless Internet, data caps are just as important as speed limits. The incentive to use unrestricted services is just as strong.

The good news, for now at least, is that T-Mobile isn’t charging music services for uncapped data, according to The Verge. And as the smallest of the major carriers, T-Mobile doesn’t pose a huge threat to the streaming music market on its own.

But by going down this road — and getting a warm response for doing so — T-Mobile is signaling to its competitors that it’s okay to dole out preferential treatment as long as customers see a short-term benefit. Once the hooks are in, T-Mobile could easily start charging these music services for their customers’ data use, and other carriers could start doing the same. AT&T has already set up a system to allow “sponsored data,” and Verizon has expressed interest in this business model as well.

And there’s nothing you can do about it. We currently don’t have any net neutrality protections in the United States, and it’s unclear whether wireless Internet will even be included as the FCC draws up new rules that can withstand legal scrutiny. Besides, if enough people feel good about what T-Mobile is doing, it’s hard to imagine regulators getting in the way. T-Mobile tries hard to look like it’s putting an arm over your shoulder, but “music freedom” is actually more of a stranglehold.

TIME Smartphones

Kill Switch Kills iPhone Thefts

Fewer iPhone Thefts Thanks to Kill Switch
A woman uses her iPhone on a subway platform in New York City, where police have reported a drop in iPhone thefts. Jens Schott Knudsen—flickr Editorial/Getty Images

"Apple picking" discouraged by antitheft technology

Thefts of iPhones have dipped in some cities, and authorities say a “kill switch” anti-theft feature is to thank.

In New York, San Francisco and London, police are reporting a drop in iPhone thefts. In New York, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman attributed the drop to the kill switch Apple launched in September, the New York Times reports. Apple product thefts in New York dropped 19% in the first five months of 2014, while iPhone thefts dropped 38% in San Francisco and 24% in London, between the six months before and after Apple installed the technology, which is called Activation Lock.

Activation Lock is built into iOS7 and allows users to remotely disable their stolen iPhones, a feature that discourages thefts. Users’ Apple IDs and passwords are required to turn off the Find My iPhone feature, and to erase or reactivate the device.

Several smartphone manufacturers, including Apple, AT&T, Google, Nokia and Samsung, have signed the “Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment”, in which signatories agreed that smartphones they manufacture after July 2015 will offer anti-theft features at no cost. Samsung announced an anti-theft feature in its Galaxy S5 in April, and Microsoft plans to add a kill switch to the Windows Phone.

The early success has encouraged state lawmakers to push for larger legislative fixes. In May, Minnesota’s governor signed a smartphone kill switch law, while the California state Senate passed a similar bill.

TIME Travel

Tested: 3 Apps to Combat Jet Lag

Crossing three or more time zones puts you at risk of a good case of jet lag. The greater the time shift in a single journey, the greater your symptoms: disrupted sleep, dodgy digestion and general fatigue.

Although jet lag affects people differently, adjusting to jet lag takes about a day per hour of time change, NASA’s chief of fatigue management told The New York Times. Managing your exposure to light can speed up resetting your body’s internal clock. Taking melatonin can help, too, notes the National Institutes of Health.

Our favorite way to beat jet lag? With apps, of course. Based on light exposure, sleep and melatonin, these apps deliver schedules to help you beat jet lag sooner.

Jet Lag Rooster

Swan Medical Group

The claim: Sleep at your regular hours but manipulate your light exposure before bedtime to adjust time zones more quickly.

How it works: The sleep calculator is easy to use, with options to input your regular sleep and wake times. Once the app figures out your jet lag-beating schedule, you can set alarms for its events: seek light, avoid light, sleep and wake up. Jet Lag Rooster allows you to choose to start the adjustment process on arrival or a few days before departure, which may help prevent the lag entirely.

The itinerary: After I chose to start adjustment after arrival, Rooster set my plan: Seek light from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. before bedding down, followed by waking at 8 a.m. and repeating the next day. Barring the odd recommendation to find myself a portable light box, these guidelines were easy to obey. Travelers crossing more time zones (say from New York to Singapore or Sydney to London) will get harder-to-follow suggestions about avoiding light in the middle of the day.

The experience: Though I followed instructions to a T on days one and two after arrival, day three saw me dozing off at 7 p.m. in bright indoor light, only to awaken at 10 p.m. and then doze off again at 1 a.m. But by day four, I had adjusted to my usual sleep schedule and felt I’d gotten over the lag – a total of three days of adjustment for crossing five time zones.

Overall: Jet Lag Rooster is a straightforward app based on research about the effect of light on jet lag, with a supporting website that offers resources including when to use the sleep aid melatonin and how quickly to adjust your sleep cycle.

Price: Free at iTunes or Google Play

Entrain

University of Michigan

The claim: This mathematician-built app simulates your body clock to compute optimal light exposure schedules based on your behavior while syncing to your new time zone.

How it works: Once you’ve input your destination and time of arrival, select the type of light (low or bright office light, or low or bright daylight) you’ll mostly be exposed to. According to the app, brighter light adjusts your body clock more quickly. The resulting schedule gives you up to seven days of suggested light exposure and sleep hours. The smartphone monitors whether you’re in light or dark.

The itinerary: Selecting Low Daylight gave me 49 hours of “entraining” to get over a five-hour time change. The program started just before my departure, with suggested light and sleep hours for the day before departure and the first two days after arrival.

The experience: Though its design is clean, the app’s interface is not intuitive, and some of its calculated schedules felt unfeasible. For example, on day two after arrival, the app suggested that I stay in the dark from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m., something not generally desirable for either leisure or business travelers. Luckily, if you haven’t managed to follow the app’s suggested itinerary, you can update the light and sleep you actually did get so the app can recalculate light and sleep time for subsequent days.

Overall: Entrain is somewhat complicated to use but could be a good option if you suffer from extreme jet lag and can invest in a day of odd sleeping to cut down your symptoms by a couple of days.

Price: Free at iTunes

Jet Lag App

OZOMedia

The claim: Take melatonin and adjust your bedtimes before departure to diminish the symptoms of jet lag.

How it works: The jet lag calculator has a minimal, intuitive interface with different algorithms for short and long trips. Tap in your destination and arrival date, and you’re given a schedule for sleep, light and melatonin that starts a few days before departure.

The itinerary: For a six-day trip to Singapore from London (a seven-hour time change), the app calculated two days of adjustment before departure and two after arrival, each with suggested sleep and wake times. If you take melatonin, the app also suggests when to pop this sleep aid (basically, any time you’re supposed to feel sleepy, whether that’s early morning or late night). All events can be exported to the phone calendar for reminders.

The experience: The pre-travel adjustment ─ sleeping at 9 p.m. the first night and 7 p.m. the second ─ was impossible for me to adhere to. Once I was on board, the airplane’s lighting clashed with what the app suggested, so I made an executive decision to sleep during most of the 13-hour flight. The post-arrival adjustment ─ sleeping at 11 p.m. and waking at 5 a.m. the following day and 7 a.m. the next ─ was much easier. By day four, I felt reasonably free of jet lag symptoms.

Overall: If you take melatonin, Jet Lag App could help find the optimal times to take it. However, the pre-trip sleep times may be too extreme to follow.

Price: $2.99 at iTunes

We also recommend noise-canceling headphones for sleeping on the flight and white noise apps for getting rest when you need it.

This article was written by Natasha Stokes and originally appeared on Techlicious.

More from Techlicious:

TIME Video Games

With Its Fire Phone Demo, Amazon Revealed It Still Doesn’t Understand Gaming

Amazon

Like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos confused the idea of gesturing with substance when he tried to show of the new Fire Phone's gaming prowess.

You may have noticed no one’s saying much about Amazon’s new gee-whiz Fire Phone as a gaming device. Amazon itself gave gaming short shrift during the phone’s unveiling yesterday, clipping out all of a minute and a half — from a presentation that ran to nearly an hour and a half — to demonstrate something Jeff Bezos called Tofu Fury.

In the game, you maneuver a little headband-toting cube of pugnacious soy through ordinarily laid out 2D levels with a dash of depth. Tilt the Fire Phone this way or that and your perspective on the 2.5D imagery shifts as if the phone were a tiny shadow box.

You can see the demo in the below video at the 53:45 mark:

“I think you can probably imagine what the dynamic perspective technology can enable for gamers,” said Bezos as he coasted sedately through the demo, qualifying it as “one very quick thing” at the outset, as if to assure the audience he’d move speedily through this show of frivolity. In those four words, he may have unwittingly conveyed all we needed to know about his and Amazon’s vision of gaming on the Fire Phone.

Then he held up Tofu Fury and started moving the phone. The perspective shifted. He moved it some more. The perspective shifted some more. The level sat there, looking like any other level in a platform game. No one ooh’d or ahh’d. The audience was either stunned to silence or as bored as I was. This was Amazon’s vision of cutting-edge gaming on its debut phone? Nintendo’s 3DS with one of its dual screens and all the controller buttons lopped off?

“What you can do here is look around on this image,” said Bezos, demonstrating that feature some more. You can’t look “everywhere,” as he claimed, just slightly left or right, up or down, maybe 45 degrees (at best) from head-on. Bezos explained your job was to rescue Fortune Kitty, a pinkish, catlike cookie crisp. The audience finally reacted by chuckling. I was still, at this point, hoping Bezos might illustrate some interesting new game idea, something that actually took advantage of the motion sensors in a way that factored in the gameplay somehow. But no, he just swiped to indicate the direction he wanted tofu-Jet-Li to move, then watched as the soy block hopped nimbly from point to point, collecting most of a line of blue orbs and landing on the next level down.

“We’re gonna call that good enough, but notice how I can look around!” said Bezos, obsessed with the notion that looking around — even when it has no meaningful gameplay purpose — could sell the idea. It didn’t. To paraphrase the late Douglas Adams, Amazon’s idea of gaming on its Fire Phone hung in the air exactly the way bricks don’t.

Maybe if he’d demonstrated a first-person game where you had to tilt the phone to look around corners, or a puzzle game where seeing what’s on the other side of something helped you calculate the solution. Even then, I’m as leery of this approach to gaming on smartphones as I’ve long been about stereoscopic 3D in movies, TVs and on Nintendo’s 3DS, where it’s actually been the inverse of its technological promise: all surface, no depth.

To be fair, I’m making a mountain out of a molehill: Fire Phone v1.0, with Firefly and its hooks into Amazon’s mercantile backend, is arguably a zillion other things before it’s a games platform. It hardly needs games or a clever gaming interface angle to work. If I suggest that Jeff Bezos doesn’t understand or frankly care all that much about making fireworks in gaming-dom, I’m not sure he’d disagree. Bezos, like Steve Jobs before him, must at least understand that smartphones like the iPhone or Fire Phone won’t have booths the size of city blocks dedicated to them at trade fairs like E3 anytime soon. You’ll probably never play a game like Grand Theft Auto V — a game that earned $1 billion in just three days, clinching the world record for fastest-selling entertainment product across any medium — or Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare on a 4.7-inch screen.

None of that’s news. The problem’s not that anyone wants those games on a smartphone, it’s that Amazon seems not to know how to play up its technology’s strengths. It should have demonstrated a game that actually took advantage of the Fire Phone’s “dynamic perspective” technology. It should have showed off meaningfully motion- or perspective-related gameplay. It didn’t. Instead, its CEO simply panned around an ordinary-looking game — one I’d be just as mechanically comfortable playing on an ordinary iPhone.

TIME FindTheBest

5 Ways to Cut Cable but Keep All Your Shows

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Trying to cut cable is like trying to quit smoking. You’ve been meaning to do it for years. You know exactly how much money you could save. You’re even getting disapproving looks from that 23-year-old neighbor…you know, the one who thinks it’s a disgusting habit that belongs in a previous century. But you still can’t deny how relaxing it is after a long, stressful day at work.

It’s time to get your cable nicotine patch. At FindTheBest, we’ve assembled five Quitting Cable Packages designed to wean you off the tube and into a happier, more affordable lifestyle.

Note: We’ll assume, conservatively, that basic cable costs about $60 per month (including fees), or $720 per year.

The Ultimate Couch Potato

Cost for all three: $291 per year

You save: $429 per year

So you still want to watch all the latest content, but you can’t stand the thought of staring at one more cable bill. Consider The Ultimate Couch Potato package, a pricey-but-comprehensive lineup that will fill nearly all of your movie, TV, and B-quality documentary needs.

The package starts with Netflix and Hulu Plus, an affordable tandem with the complementary strengths of selection (Netflix) and new releases (Hulu). Add in Amazon’s growing Instant Video content library, and you’ll be able to watch almost any popular show, as long as it’s not a brand new series on HBO. (Amazon Prime does give you access to older HBO shows, like The Wire and The Sopranos.)

Common objection: Amazon and Netflix seem to offer a lot of the same content: Is it really worth paying for both?

Answer: As a cable subscriber, you’re paying for 85 separate channels, 70 of which are garbage. If you’re paying for garbage 70 times over, you might as well pay for great content twice over.

The Cheapskate

Cost for all six: $0 per year

You Save: $720 per year

Let’s flip this around. Suppose you don’t care what you watch, as long as the TV stays on and the bills go away. Consider this Cheapskate collection of free (and legal!) services.

The headliner here is Hulu. A basic Hulu account gets you temporary access to a hodgepodge of popular TV series—like The Daily Show and The Bachelorette—as well as a whole mess of shows no one’s ever heard of. Grab a beer, flip open your laptop, and enjoy free access to the latest episode of Paranormal Home Inspectors.

Meanwhile, you might try clicking your way over to SnagFilms, Crackle, or PopcornFlix. They might sound like viruses waiting to happen, but in fact, they’re all legitimate online streaming sites with a handful of bizarre, low-budget films filled with bad acting and unintentional comedy.

Common objection: After watching 20 minutes of Hulu, I’ve seen the same Xbox commercial 17 times in a row. This is obnoxious.

Answer: You’re right. We’ve got nothing.

The Sports Fan

Cost: Ranges from about $35 to $175 per year, per sport

You Save: Anywhere from $680 (one sport) to about $205 (if you buy all of the above)

It’s the trump card in any cable company’s argument: sports. You’ll wait 24 hours to watch the latest episode of Mad Men. With sports, even a five-minute delay is unacceptable.

Fortunately, services like MLB.TV Premium, NHL Game Center LIVE, and NBA League Pass have begun to solve this problem. Provided you have a strong Internet signal and a streaming device (like a Roku or Apple TV), you can watch live games on your TV at about a third the cost of cable.

Unfortunately, restrictions and limitations abound. Most services will “black out” local teams so that customers won’t cancel their cable subscription, while the playoffs often require an additional fee. And then there’s the NFL. Sure, you can pay to stream preseason games or rewatch yesterday’s match, but to get live, regular-season action, you’re stuck with DIRECTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket or the local cable offerings.

Common objection: I’d watch more basketball/baseball, but they only ever show [terrible local team X] on cable.

Answer: Great! You’re the perfect sort of person (and perhaps the only sort of person) that will benefit from an online NBA/MLB service. You’ll get access to all those good teams you never get to see, and who cares if [terrible local team X] is blacked out. Cut the cord today!

The Modern Moviephile

Cost: About $50 for 12 movies per year, $150 for 36 movies per year

You Save: $570 – $670 per year

You’ve tried Netflix, but you’re tired of waiting a full year just to see Brad Pitt’s gorgeous hair mop from World War Z. The answer: online rentals. Each of the above services offer cheap rates (usually, $3-$5) for popular films mere months after their release. It’s just like those $19 in-room movies at the hotel, only not exorbitantly expensive. Meanwhile, SundanceNow offers a similar service for a whole catalog of indie films.

Common objection: Isn’t this a lot more expensive than Netflix or Hulu?

Answer: It depends on how much you watch. If you’re selective enough to pick a dozen movies per year, there’s no better option for watching recent releases in seconds.

The Time Traveler

Cost: $96 per year for Redbox, varies for Blockbuster (per rental)

You Save: $624 per year if you just get Redbox Instant

Maybe you’re nostalgic for the early 2000s—the days of video rentals and iPods, boxy TVs and DVD players, Blockbuster Videos and grocery store Redbox machines.

As it turns out, these brands are soldiering on (yes, even Blockbuster) in the form of online streaming services. If you’re the sort that likes to go down with the ship, or the type that dreams of reliving the Alamo, consider signing on for one of these last-gasp services. Who knows? Subscription rates might drop through the floor as these old vets cling to life.

Common objection: Blockbuster? Wasn’t this the company that put my favorite video shop out of the business, then promptly raised prices?

Answer: You’re right: Stick with Netflix.

This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.

TIME T-Mobile

T-Mobile’s CEO: AT&T and Verizon Are ‘Raping You’

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Presented By T-Mobile
CEO of T-Mobile John Legere attends Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Ari Perilstein—Getty Images

Just the latest in John Legere's history of madcap soundbites

T-Mobile CEO John Legere is hardly known for speaking delicately, but his most recent outburst, at a Wednesday press event, might take the proverbial profanity cake.

Business Insider reports that Legere had harsh words for competitors AT&T and Verizon. “These high and mighty duopolists that are raping you for every penny you have,” he said. “The f—ers hate you.”

According to The Verge, Legere was particularly perturbed about news of Amazon’s reported decision to make its smartphone AT&T exclusive. “Amazon doesn’t know what they just signed up for,” Legere said. “Remember the Facebook phone?

This isn’t Legere’s first tirade against other carriers. In March, he said that AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint’s subsidy model was “the biggest crock of sh-t I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” He also called AT&T “cr-p” at CES in January.

TIME Social Networking

Facebook Went Down Across the World While You Were Sleeping

Most people in the Western hemisphere slept through the longest Facebook outage since 2010.

Facebook went down for about 30 minutes early Thursday morning—and still the world kept turning.

Users around the world were greeted with the notification: “Sorry, something went wrong.”

It was among Facebook’s longest outages since 2010, when servers went down for 2.5 hours, according to Bloomberg. But Facebook now says it’s back up to 100 percent. The cause of the outage was not immediately known.

Of course, #Facebookdown began trending on Twitter with apocalyptic tweets like this:

and this:

And the media fretted, too:

The Guardian’s Erin McCann brings up a good point, though: Facebook referrals drive so much traffic on the web that while Facebook outages are a mere inconvenience for most users, they’re a much bigger problem for brands and media outlets.

TIME Smartphones

Let’s Not Be So Cynical About the Amazon Fire Phone’s Coolest Feature

Amazon

The Firefly button isn't just about getting you to buy more things, even if Amazon would like it if you did.

Let’s get this out of the way: Amazon’s Fire Phone exists, in large part, for you to buy more stuff from Amazon.

It includes a year of Amazon Prime service as a way of getting you hooked. The home screen can show recommendations for music and movies to buy. If you have a Fire TV, the phone can become your remote control, making it easier to buy or rent more videos.

And most importantly, Amazon’s smartphone includes a dedicated hardware button, called Firefly, that lets you scan real-world items such as bar codes, book covers, DVD covers, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and links. It has deep hooks into Amazon’s online store so you can buy items with a few taps.

Tech pundits around the web have pounced on the idea that Firefly is all about getting people to fill their Amazon shopping carts. Clearly that’s something Amazon wants, but to view Firefly mainly as a gateway to consumerism short-changes the feature’s true potential.

With Firefly, Amazon is trying to build a link between the virtual world and the physical one. For example, we saw how you could scan a bag of chips and have the nutritional details load into your health-tracking app of choice, scan a wine bottle and get food pairing recommendations, or tag a song and listen to related music in a streaming music app.

It’s not hard to imagine other potential uses for Firefly. You might be able to scan business cards into a rolodex app, or quickly create an eBay listing from a product barcode. Perhaps you could scan a book to bring up its Wikipedia page, or scan a tech product to see a review from your favorite site. It’ll be up to developers to add these kinds of capabilities to their apps, but none of these potential uses involve buying things from Amazon.

Some of these scan-and-match capabilities exist already on other smartphones, but they tend to be spread across separate apps, reducing the chances that you’ll actually bother using them. Amazon is the only hardware maker that’s tied this level of item scanning to a physical button on the phone itself. And it’s arguably in the best position to do so, given that it sells more than 100 million of these items–digital and physical–through its online store.

Does Amazon have a business incentive to offer the Firefly feature on its phones? Of course it does, but this is true of any tech company. Google gives away wonderful, life-enhancing web services for free in hopes of gleaning your personal information and selling more ads. Apple offers amazing features in iOS and Mac OS X that only work when you, your family and your friends are all using Apple products, thereby encouraging everyone to buy only Apple hardware. For Amazon, the possibility that you might buy something through Firefly is a benefit of a feature that has many other ways of being useful.

That’s why the Fire Phone is the first Amazon product that actually interests me. With Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets and Fire TV set-top box, the goal of selling more Amazon content always seemed too explicit. I don’t subscribe to Amazon Prime, and I don’t buy a lot of videos, music or products from Amazon, so it never felt like Amazon’s hardware had much to offer. Yet I’m genuinely intrigued by Firefly as a way to make life easier–not just to fill our homes with more stuff.

TIME Smartphones

5 Things You Need to Know About Amazon’s Fire Phone

Amazon's first smartphone emphasizes Prime services, but has a few neat hardware tricks as well.

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Amazon put the rumors to bed on Wednesday and announced the Fire Phone, the company’s first smartphone.

The market is already full of high-end handsets, so it’ll be tricky for Amazon to stand out from the herd. But here are several things that the retailer hopes will get your attention:

It Has the 3D Gimmick Everyone Expected

As rumored, the Fire Phone has multiple cameras on the front that can track the position of the user’s head, creating a 3D effect as your perspective shifts.

It’s not just about curb appeal; tilting the phone can reveal hidden menus, such as a search bar or an options panel. Users can also scroll through books and web pages by tilting. Developers can also build 3D tilt effects into their games and apps.

The Hardware Has Some Nice Touches

On paper, the Fire Phone’s tech specs don’t seem much different from other high-end phones. It has a 4.7-inch HD display, a 2.2 GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM and a 13-megapixel camera.

But Amazon has paid attention to the little details. The camera, for instance, includes optical image stabilization and an f/2.0 aperture, so it should be able to rival Apple’s iPhone 5S and HTC’s One (M8) in low-light performance. The screen is among the brightest on the market, and includes a circular polarizer to help with outdoor readability, even if you have sunglasses on. Amazon’s also including a pair of earbuds that clasp together magnetically and use a thick, tangle-resistant cable. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but it sounds like a solid piece of hardware.

There’s a Button for Identifying (and Buying) Stuff

This wouldn’t be an Amazon product without deep hooks into the company’s online store, so the Fire Phone includes a dedicated “Firefly” button on the side. Press the button, and the Fire will scan the real world for bar codes, book covers, magazines and phone numbers. It can also identify songs and videos by listening for the audio track. With this button, Amazon says it can identify more than 100 million items.

Obviously, you’ll be able to buy things from Amazon after Firefly tags them, but Amazon is promising other uses that don’t involve your wallet. For instance, you might be able to open a song in your streaming music app of choice, or scan the bag of chips you’re eating into a nutrition app. This all depends on whether developers make use of Amazon’s tools to hook into Firefly.

It’s All About Amazon Services

The Fire Phone includes one year of Amazon Prime service, which normally costs $99. This includes a selection of streaming video, streaming music and e-book rentals, and Amazon is throwing in unlimited photo storage as well.

Meanwhile, some of the features we’ve seen on Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets are making their way to the Fire Phone. The “Mayday” button provides near-instant tech support over video chat, and “ASAP” pre-loads videos based on your viewing habits, so you spend less time buffering. If you have a Fire TV set-top box, you can send photos and videos to the set-top box by pressing a button on the phone. You can also use Amazon’s X-ray feature to get more information about whatever you’re watching.

The software otherwise looks similar to that of Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets, with a carousel of featured apps and media on top, but Amazon is also adding some “active widgets” underneath the carousel. These can include recent e-mails and recommendations from Amazon’s store. Users can also switch to a more traditional grid view for apps. (One glossed-over downside to Amazon’s software, which is loosely-based on Android: Its app selection is smaller than the iOS App Store and Google Play Store, and there are no official Google apps to speak of.)

It’s an AT&T Exclusive, Priced on the High-End

Despite all the speculation about Amazon shaking up the pricing model for smartphones, the Fire Phone costs about the same as any other high-end handset. The Fire Phone starts shipping on July 25, and will cost $200 with 32 GB of storage, or $300 with 64 GB of storage. You can also buy it without a contract for $649 to $749.

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