Amazon sets tablet market on Fire

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3 October 2011 | 0

A few weeks ago I wrote of the broken tablet market and how a swathe of cookie-cutter devices was failing to provide consumers with a viable alternative to the iPad 2. The unveiling by Amazon of their Kindle Fire slate marks the arrival of a device that has become an instant must-have in the same way the original Kindle did, and poses a legitimate threat to Apple’s iPad dominance. Had the Kindle Fire been given a European launch date you could be certain pre-orders would be setting records and manufacturers like Samsung, Toshiba, HTC, Dell and Asus (to name but a few) would be left with warehouses full of high spec inventory wondering where it all went wrong.

Is the Kindle Fire actually that good a device? Not really. If it was a standard Android tablet the technorati would have scoffed at it instantly. A 7" LCD screen, 1GHz processor, 512Mb RAM, 8Gb storage and no 3G, camera or microphone put it at the lower end of the spectrum, that’s before you consider it’s running the smartphone-centric Android Gingerbread 2.3 operating system – a full generation behind 3.1 Honeycomb now standard on would-be iPad killers.

In its favour, the Fire is small and light (only 413 grams) but has managed to entrance early adopters by adopting the best of Android with Apple’s savvy marketing, starting with mimicing the iPad’s first great trick: telling you it’s not a PC. Indeed the Kindle Fire is not a PC, but neither is it a tablet, or an e-reader. By absenting itself from the race for better processors, more storage and superior screen resolutions, Amazon is marketing the Fire as a triumph of simplicity over spec. It worked for the under-powered first generation iPhone, and also in the gamng space, where Nintendo’s Wii console (sales of 88 million by last June), consistently outsells the Xbox 360 (55 million) and PlayStation 3 (51.8 million) since its launch in 2008.

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The Fire borrows a second trick from Apple in being able to provide a direct line to its book store and media and music streaming services. Where it beats Apple is the cloud-based Whispersync feature that lets users consumer media across multiple devices with continuous play. Apple can do similar with it’s Airplay networking feature, but the use of the cloud removes the need for a ‘local’ content host completely. Unlike Airplay devices you don’t need them to all be on to stream from them. This is great news for users of multiple devices. Apple would want to quicken the rollout of their iCloud service to keep up.

Amazon also manage to compete with Android by taking another leaf out of the Apple playbook: a curated application store. Unlike Android Market with its laissez faire attitude to quality control, Amazon’s Appstore for Android is smaller but screened for quality. Google was doubtless not too pleased to see the radically redesigned user interface either, but this is another huge plus for Amazon. Instead of giving an identikit user experience, the Fire’s friendly bookshelf interface betrays the humdrum back end. That is looks a bit like iBooks won’t be lost on some observers, but maybe that was the point.

Lastly, the real kicker. At $199 the Kindle Fire is one of the cheaper tablets you will find, but for it’s build quality represents outstanding value for money. At $300 less than the cheapest iPad 2 this is the trump card, establishing the Fire as a tablet for those with only a passing interest and, more importantly, a route to Amazon’s e-book store and cloud services. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been clear on the business reason for sticking to a low price point: the hardware is but a portal, the real money is in services and content. Could the Kindle Fire for Amazon what the iPod/iTunes link did for Apple? The short answer is yes. The market expects.

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