Kindle Fire an iPad killer? Yes. It's the price, stupid

commentary The Kindle Fire is smaller than the iPad and has half the features. CNET's Molly Wood argues that it doesn't need the other half, because it's less than half the price.

commentary Amazon, not Apple, just mainstreamed the tablet market.

The company's new Kindle Fire tablet, a 7-inch touch-screen device powered by Amazon's content ecosystem and priced at just $199, may be an orange to Apple's iPad apple, but I'd argue that it's an iPad killer all the same.

On paper, the Kindle Fire has half the features of the iPad. In fact, it's almost literally half the features--here's a handy comparison chart so you can see for yourself. There's no camera, front or rear; the 8GB of onboard storage is half the amount of the base-model iPad; the Fire has no cellular options, no built-in GPS, and no Bluetooth, as the iPad does. The software options compared to the iPad are minimal, and the app library for Android still isn't nearly as robust as the iOS app library. All true facts. Doesn't matter.

There may be more strikes against the Kindle Fire, too: Amazon hasn't explicitly denied that it will block access to competing content-delivery apps like Hulu, Netflix, or any upstart e-bookstores that might want to be on the Fire, but I'd be surprised if you ever find them there. Amazon has taken a closed, proprietary approach with the Kindle line, and I think it's more than a safe bet to say that this won't be the "open" Android tablet experience you've been hearing about with the Galaxy Tabs or the Xooms of the world. Not even close, in fact.

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• Amazon unveils Kindle Touch and Kindle Fire tablet

And then, of course, there's the fact that the Kindle Fire is a 7-inch tablet in a 10-inch tablet world. All previous 7-inch competitors, from the original Galaxy Tab to the poor, doomed PlayBook have fallen by the wayside--while Steve Jobs personally mocked them as "dead on arrival", and once gruesomely suggested you'd have to file down your fingers to live with one.

Again, all true facts about the Kindle Fire, none of which matter. In these troubled times, and possibly even before, you need look no further than the $99 TouchPad buying frenzy for the lesson of the tablet market (and maybe every other electronics market, ultimately): it's the price, stupid.

Data point from one of our users: you can actually buy the entire new ad-subsidized Kindle lineup for less than the cost of a 32GB iPad.
Data point from one of our users: you can actually buy the entire new ad-subsidized Kindle lineup for less than the cost of a 32GB iPad. Sarah Tew/CNET

At $199, virtually any mainstream consumer is going to stand next to these two devices, look at them side-by-side, and make a price-conscious decision--and that decision is easier than you might think, as tablet usage starts to sort itself out. Sure, the Kindle Fire lacks a camera for video chat and movie-making. So what? Hardly anyone is doing that with their tablets anyway. No GPS? That's what your phone is for. No Bluetooth? Shrug. It's one hundred and ninety-nine dollars.

The iPad, in even sideways competition with a Kindle Fire, faces the same problem it's always had, but it's a bigger problem now. The problem is that hardly anyone actually needs an iPad. And as tablet usage starts to shake out, it's more and more apparent that a low-cost option with fewer features will actually suit most people's first-world needs. According to a recent Citigroup survey, the vast majority of tablet users use these devices primarily for lightweight entertainment: mostly casual gaming, Web browsing, e-mail, and, increasingly, e-books.

Fully half of tablet users are streaming video. We're also traveling with them like crazy, which means throwing them in bags; taking them to restaurants, which means exposing them to foodstuffs of all sorts; and giving them to our kids, which means, well, you know. Also, 35 percent of respondents to a Staples survey said they use their tablets in the bathroom. I'm just saying, wouldn't you rather that be a $199 tablet than a $500 tablet?

In my opinion, Amazon has kicked off more than a price war, here. It's unquestionably slaughtered every Android tablet on the market, and it's set up a showdown with the iPad that doesn't have to be feature for feature. If anything, Amazon has done what Apple did with the iPad in the first place: create an entirely new market. And the timing simply couldn't be better.

 

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