Amazon's upcoming tablet isn't precisely like anything else on the market. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't have any competitors. In fact, it has scads of them.
The long-standing rumors that Amazon.com would release a tablet are rumors no more--at an event yesterday in New York City, Amazon founder CEO Jeff Bezos announced the Kindle Fire.
He told us things we'd been expecting for a while: The Fire is a 7-inch tablet that uses Amazon's own variant of Android, and it's deeply integrated with the company's services for buying books, magazines, movies, music, and apps. And he revealed some stuff that people hadn't been anticipating, such as a surprisingly low price ($199) and the use of a new browser-turbocharging technology called Amazon Silk.
I'm not going to come to any definitive conclusions about the Fire until I've tried one in the comfort of my own home. (At the press event, we got demos by Amazon execs, but weren't allowed to do our own test drives.) But it's not too early to start thinking about how it could change the market.
I write a blog called Challengers, so my instinct is to try and figure out which existing products the Fire competes with. Let's consider the possibilities, shall we?
The iPad. It's obvious that the Fire isn't merely an iPad clone at a far lower price. It's got a smaller screen, a chunkier case, no cameras or microphone, less storage, and fewer apps both preloaded and in its AppStore. It's far more focused on consuming stuff purchased from Amazon than the iPad is on consuming stuff bought from Apple. It's just different.
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Because of all this, some folks are saying that the Kindle Fire isn't an iPad challenger, period. But let's face it: Lots of people find the iPad intriguing but aren't going to plunk down $499 for one. And nobody except for hard-core gadget nerds is going to buy an iPad and a Kindle Fire; people will compare prices and features and choose one tablet. So the Fire does compete with the iPad, but indirectly--call it a Sideways iPad Rival if you want.
The iPod Touch. As my friend Seth Weintraub of 9to5 Google pointed out to me, the Fire is in some ways a closer counterpart to Apple's iPod Touch than to the iPad. Sure, there are differences, starting with the fact that the Fire is a much less elegant gizmo with a much bigger screen. But the prices are similar: The Touch starts at $229 to the Fire's $199. And the key uses--music, movies, Web browsing, and games--are similar. If you've got roughly $200 burning a hole in your pocket and want to spend it on a highly portable computing device that isn't a smartphone, you might well consider both the Fire and the Touch. That's noteworthy, since the iPod Touch has had no serious competition until now.
Other Android tablets. Amazon doesn't want you thinking of the Fire as "an Android tablet"--Jeff Bezos never described it as such at the launch event, and it has an all-new interface that has little in common with the standard Android look and feel. It also offers Amazon's own AppStore but not Google's Android Market. In short, it's a tablet for the masses, not for Android geeks.
But it is an Android tablet--one that costs way less than other 7-inch Android tablets such as Samsung's 7-inch Galaxy Tab. (It's available for $199 too, but only with a two-year contract for pricey 3G service from Verizon--in commitment-free form, it's $499.) It's also the first Android tablet with a suite of content services that rivals Apple's offerings.
By being so much cheaper, and providing easy access to so much stuff to watch, listen to, read, and play, the Fire is the first Android tablet with a shot at being a huge success. Even if Amazon doesn't want anyone to think of it that way.
Barnes & Noble's Nook Color. Okay, now here's one gadget that is an awful lot like the Fire, period--it basically created the market which Amazon is now entering. The screen's the same size; it also chooses simplicity over features such as cameras; books and magazines are a major focus; it has its own application store rather than providing access to Google's. And the price--$249, at least for now--is in the same zone. If you're considering a Nook Color, you'd be nutty not to at least compare it to the Kindle Fire when the latter comes out on November 15. And while I have no inside information, I'd be astonished if the rumors that Barnes & Noble is getting ready to release a more powerful, media-savvy Nook weren't true. That'll place the Fire and the Nook in even more direct competition.
Other Kindles. Amazing but true: It was only 15 months ago that Amazon's classic-style Kindle--with a monochrome E-ink screen and no touch interface or apps--went for $259, a meaningfully higher price than the Fire is starting at. But Amazon clearly doesn't think that the Fire's aggressive price rendered conventional Kindles obsolete. In fact, Bezos devoted the first part of the press event to announcing three new E-ink models at the most aggressive price points yet: a basic $79 model, a $99 touch-screen one, and a $149 model with touch and 3G. It's also keeping the existing keyboard Kindles (with and without 3G) and jumbo-sized DX versions on the market, at least for the time being.
Varying prices aside, the Kindle Fire and its book-centric E-ink relatives have distinctly different virtues. (Some people find E-ink easier on the eyeballs than LCD screens, and the battery life of the E-ink Kindles is measured in months, not hours.) I do think that almost any shopper who heads to Amazon's site to buy a Kindle will quickly gravitate to either the Fire or an E-ink model. But a lot of folks who currently own no e-reader or tablet are going to start by deciding to buy a Kindle--which means that the Fire will compete with Amazon's e-readers.
Ultimately, the Kindle Fire is competing with everything--and nothing. As successful as the iPad and earlier Kindles have been, the vast majority of consumers still haven't decided to invest in any device of this sort. As more and more of them consider taking the plunge, many will compare the Fire against just about every other device that looks even vaguely like it. But by building something that isn't quite like any other product to date--at a price that's low enough to raise eyebrows--Amazon is also aiming to dramatically expand the market rather than just steal sales from other companies.