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The Amazon unicorn has finally been unveiled and it’s sporting a new noun in it’s name: The Amazon Kindle Fire. It’s sporting an incredible spec sheet including a dual-core TI 1Ghz CPU, 7-inch IPS screen, and unlimited cloud storage for all Amazon content, all for the low price of $199. This specs and price surprised the heck out of me, the tech community, and you, I’m sure, as well. While this device will sell well, and it will be the first successful Android(ish) competitor to the iPad, I want to slow down for minute. Let the adrenaline ease away. Let’s look at exactly what this tablet is and whether you should pre-order.

Fueling the Fire

A name does say quite a bit about a device. It shows exactly what the designers built it for. The iPad took its name from a blogger who likened the “Apple Tablet” to some sort of iPADD (PADD being the futuristic tablets used for various purposes within Star Trek). Apple decided it liked the allusion and took the name probably because it invoked the feelings of a revolutionary, futuristic and all-purpose device. The Motorola Xoom seems to mean Zoom to the Xth power. It was designed to be faster than the iPad (due to Tegra 2). The ASUS Transformer can “transform” between a consumption tablet and a productivity device. The Sony Tablet S is a tablet with an S on it. It’s obvious what the designers thought for that guy.

Most of the Amazon tablet’s name is simple (Amazon, Kindle, Tablet…duh) but the “fire” part left me wondering. The device certainly doesn’t look fiery. There is no “fire”-like theme in the UI as far as I can tell. I would certainly hope it doesn’t get hot enough to catch fire. However, what fire does seem to symbolize is something that is ever consuming. Specifically that points to the device as being a consumption device. The Amazon Kindle Fire will allow the user to “consume” books, music, videos, documents, games, apps, whatever. The whole suite of Amazon services and cloud servers is available for that reason.

However, the one thing that a fire does is consume and destroy. A fire cannot rebuild, only destroy. It must leave the construction to the other forces in the ecosystem. In other words, based on the name (and what Amazon has marketed it for) it will not be a great productivity tool. Sure, you’ll have QuickOffice or DocumentsToGo or whatever, and you’ll even have a virtual keyboard. But the one thing that seems missing from the spec sheets is Bluetooth. That means no physical keyboard, no mouse (although the Android 2.3 says that more than anything), and there is no external storage to easily move files from one device to another. This device is not designed for writing, editing spreadsheets, or anything productive. It is designed as a medium for users to funnel money to Amazon for content that they can consume.

That brings me to a second interpretation of “fire”. The most recent use of that word was in describing the dramatic price drop of the HP Touchpad. A “fire-sale” device. HP sold it’s device at an incredible loss but reaped some benefit from the sale of apps and services. It’s obvious that Amazon is doing that here as well. There is no doubt that Amazon is selling this device at a loss, but the fact that it is filled to the brim with Amazon stores galore shows exactly what they intend this device to be. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you already buy apps, books, and music from Amazon and own a Prime membership, then the Amazon Kindle Fire is geared to give you all the content you already enjoy in a nice and neat package for relatively cheap. But otherwise understand that $199 price is just the cover charge to the Amazon party.

It has…Amazon…and stuff.

That brings me to another point. The tech blogs are all raving about how this tablet has Amazon’s whole suite of mobile services baked right in. It comes with the Amazon Android Market, the Kindle App, Amazon cloud music, and even access to the Amazon Prime Video store. What’s even better is that all Amazon content is stored remotely in the cloud. You still have to download it to view, but you can then delete it when you’re done without fearing that you’ve lost it.

But wait a sec, how is this different from any other Android tablet? Well it’s not. Kindle books are stored on your Amazon Kindle account and are accessible through the Kindle app in Android. Amazon’s Android App Store is available on any Android tablet or phone, will save all your purchases and allow you to re-download when necessary and benefits from the same deals and prices no matter what device you own. Amazon MP3 is an app for Android that utilizes the Amazon Cloud Player in exactly the same way as the Kindle Fire will. The Video player is currently not available for Android, but considering the above, I don’t doubt it will be once the device launches.

So if the Fire Tablet will come with all things Amazon, just as Android tablets have access to, then what is important is what it is missing: Google. There will be no Android Market, and therefore no access to apps and services that are only available on the Android Market. There will be no offloading of apps from third parties. There seem to be no widgets, no home screens, no theme changing, no customizability of the UI. For that matter, Amazon seems to have stripped all the benefits there might have been from Android and replaced it with a simplistic, Amazon centric UI. While that may be nice for users looking for a simple UI experience, those who have come to love Android for its open source nature and customization will probably despise the changes.

Once again, $199 is the cover charge to the Amazon party. You want to get music or videos to put on your tablet somewhere other than Amazon? Well you’ve got 5GB free for music on Amazon Cloud Player. Any more and you have to pay. You have 8GB of storage but that 8GB has to store not only content that you’ve downloaded from Amazon’s cloud servers, but also your apps and the operating system itself. With no memory expansion or USB ports, you are literally at the mercy of Amazon’s services for getting any content for consumption.

This Will Sell Because Everything Else Sucks

And then we come to reality. The iPad is the most successful tablet in the world because it is a well built tablet, it has a robust ecosystem, and because it has the biggest accessory market of anything on the planet. Trying to sell an Android tablet in this market is like throwing a gimp one-armed midget in the ring with a world class heavyweight champion. Some (like the Transformer) have gained some measure of success by adding something to make their iPad-clone somewhat unique and price it lower than the iPad. Some (Galaxy Tab) have tried to be as obvious as possible with their iPad copying.

While many of these companies (Apple included) are trying to sell hardware and Google happens to profit from the software and services (Apple’s software and services profit are a happy accident for them), Amazon is doing the opposite by selling services with hardware attached to it. Essentially they have done what Android tablet makers have been trying to copy from Apple for so long, the success of a closed ecosystem.

So, You’re Gonna Buy It, Right?

So despite the annoyance of being stuck in Amazon’s restrictive ecosystem, the lack of anything Google, no productivity options, etc., it’s going to sell well and the reason is simple. No matter what any tech blogger will say to try to add value to the device, the main reason it’s going to be successful is because it’s dirt cheap. $199 is a great price for a fairly powerful tablet and a fairly robust ecosystem.

But just keep in mind that there is nothing added to this tablet, just subtracted. With this tablet you lose productivity, storage expansion, Bluetooth, cameras, and pretty much anything good that the Android ecosystem would otherwise have given you. This is a device designed to be sold at a loss so that the services and content that you will buy will produce a huge healthy profit.

There’s nothing wrong with that at all. The PS3 and XBox 360 were both built at a loss in order to reap game profits, but nobody blames them for it. Printers have been sold at a loss for decades in order to reap profits from the ink sales (most people hate this though). In an era where hardware is sold for dirt cheap, software is the only way to profitability. There is a reason why Leo Apotheker wanted to abandon the hardware market. There’s a reason why the iPad is the most profitable tablet on the market. It’s the same reason why the Kindle Fire will be hugely successful.

Should you buy it? I would suggest that it is a great value if you feel that you are already invested in Amazon’s ecosystem or feel that you haven’t invested enough in anything else to make a switch. However, if you enjoy the openness and customizability of Gingerbread and Honeycomb or enjoy the high quality and massive ecosystem of Apple, then I would suggest you avoid this tablet, because there is too much missing for it to be anything but a bargain bin product.

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There has been a lot of typing and hurrahing about the possibility of an Amazon Tablet of late. It seems like once a week there is someone talking about how successful it will be, that it will be the only competitor to the iPad, or that it will become Android’s White Knight. Frankly, every time I read such an article I want to slap these writers in the face with reality. The question isn’t whether it will sell well. No matter what, Amazon has the brand loyalty and will most likely set a price low enough(supposedly $250) to make it very intriguing for many tablet shoppers. The real question is whether this Amazon tablet is the droid we were looking for. Will it help Android or harm it? Will it have the long term success that Android needs to compete with the iPad or be just another drop in the bucket?

Amazonia

First of all, let’s talk about a lot of the benefits that the Amazon tablet will supposedly have that will make it appealing. There is of course the simple marketing power of Amazon’s brand name, but one can have differing opinions on Amazon as a company. There is also the almost complete certainty that it will be one of the cheapest, if not absolutely the cheapest, Android tab on the block. While that is a benefit, I consider it more of a boon but I’ll explain that later.

The biggest benefit to the Android Tablet is the wide variety of services that Amazon already has available for existing Android tablets. With an Android App Store, an Instant Video player, a Cloud Music service and a highly successful book store, Amazon has been creating a complete ecosystem for an inevitable tablet for the last year. This suite of services will certainly give the tablet the most complete set of entertainment tools available on ANY Android tablet. The Android Market’s lack of an iTunes-like music or movie store, lack of any interoperability with home computers (File system views and dragging-and-dropping is still quite intimidating for the average user), and lack of an iBooks like bookstore other than the anemic Google Books app has created a massive void that can easily be filled by Amazon.

But wait a minute, Google has all of these services, but either they aren’t on tablets or they aren’t ready yet. Google Music is a great way to get your music collection to your phone or tablet but it lacks a music store, is still in beta, and is still only by Google invitation. The Android market was updated on most up to date Android phones to allow for movie and book purchases (again, through Google Books) but as of yet I have not seen the movie functionality come to Honeycomb. Netflix and Hulu Plus are two easy alternatives but even they are very very slowly coming to Honeycomb tablets. At this point, it seems like Netflix and Hulu are giving up and just waiting for Ice Cream Sandwich.

With Google dragging it’s heels and proving that Honeycomb truly is a beta product, it seems like a perfect environment for an Amazon powered tablet to emerge. Except that your Honeycomb tablet is already Amazon powered. You can get the entire suite of Amazon software for your Honeycomb tablet already. The Amazon App Store, the Kindle App and the Amazon Cloud Player are all already available for all tablets. So what’s the big deal about Amazon’s ecosystem on an Amazon tablet? That it’s already pre-installed? Whoopdy-doo. What will likely happen with the Amazon tablet though is that you’ll actually lose everything Google about Android.

A Non-Google Android

What does Amazon seek to gain from an Amazon tablet? Certainly not a significant profit margin from the tablet ($250 doesn’t leave much for profit if it’s actually not built like a piece of garbage). Amazon’s not getting anything from Google for creating the tablet. Most likely Amazon wants the same thing that it gains from it’s suite of services: to use the Android platform to push it’s Kindle store, Amazon store and App store to the forefront. An Amazon tablet will run a heavily modified version of Android that will be devoid of anything Google and be filled to the brim with Amazon. With the current crop of tablets you can have your Amazon and eat your Honeycomb too. With an Amazon tablet, you only get one. Amazon may have plenty to offer, but options are always good. Will the tablet have an Android market or be like the Nook Color in having only it’s limited Nook App market? Wouldn’t the lack of an Android market deteriorate the quality of the tablet to a significant degree? Would Amazon refuse to let us use Google Music or Google Books?

Obviously Honeycomb is lacking in functionality but Google is likely to add that functionality when Ice Cream Sandwich is released. Google already has the services it needs ready to launch, but just needs to get them to tablets. Ice Cream Sandwich seems as likely a place as any. Should this scenario come about, do you think Amazon would let us update to include the swatch of Google services along side its own? I highly doubt it. Amazon’s tablet is a temporary fix but one that will likely require a lot of concessions. It is also one that looks suspiciously like the Nook Color.

Value Does Not Mean Quality

Does a $250 tablet sound like it would be a high quality piece of machinery? Heck no. I doubt Amazon will want to make these at a heavy loss, so we will most likely be seeing a very value built tablet. We won’t be seeing the high quality of an IPS screen, or a particularly powerful processor, or the beautiful aluminum finish and glass screen of the iPad. Instead this tablet will most likely be 7 inches of old LCD moderate-ness, covered in a moderately thick matte plastic shell, probably have some sort of non-Nvidia dual-core processor (if we’re lucky, it may even be a Snapdragon) and last for about 7-9 hours on battery life. Since it’s being released in October, Nvidia may want to give Amazon a big deal on their Tegra 2s as they start shipping their Tegra 3s to other OEMs willing to pay more. In other words the Amazon Tablet will most likely be a slightly upgraded version of the Nook Color. That will be fine for bargain shoppers, considering the upgrades will make it quite capable and the benefits of Ice Cream Sandwich and Tegra 3 may not matter to most shoppers. However, the impact on the market as a whole will be detrimental.

There are many that argue that Amazon will be willing to take a loss for the ability to sell all their digital stuff. Well that may be, but how much of a loss do you think they will take. The above quoted author states that “Amazon won’t chintz out on the design, either.” Well why do you think that when every other Android tablet uses cheap plastic, that only ASUS includes an IPS screen and Samsung includes a terrible oversaturated LCD panel, and every other manufacturer uses cheap TN LCDs. And by the way, these guys are charging $400-600 for their tablets. That’s twice the price of Amazon’s tablet. Only Apple’s guaranteed success in the market, control of the software and ownership of a processor manufacturing plant allows them to make the highest quality tablet on the market for $500. Even if Amazon were willing to take a heavy loss on the tablet, how much of a loss do you think Amazon’s board of directors would let the company take on each tablet? $100? $200? $300? Even more?

If the Amazon Tablet is incredibly successful, what will that tell Android tablet OEMs? HP’s dramatic murdering of the Touchpad has already had an incredible impact. Many OEMs are noticing that cheap sells, as long as there is a minimum of functionality involved. If the market continues as it is now, then the iPad will be synonymous with high quality while Android will be synonymous with the word “cheap.” Android OEMs need to compete with Apple by making high quality competitively priced tablets. Making Android “cheap” just degenerates its relevance in the tech world. The PC’s current reputation as being “cheap” doesn’t hurt it but that’s because there is a vast ecosystem of software surrounding it that is in fact much bigger than that of Mac OS. Unfortunately, Android has a smaller ecosystem than iOS.  If Android truly becomes nothing but “cheap” while Apple becomes “high quality” then that will effectively kill Android. Only bargain shoppers will care about Android. Those who want a “real” tablet will go for Apple.

So, Anyway

I know my argument is suggesting a slippery slope that may or may not happen. I also know the Amazon Tablet has not actually been announced or released or anything yet, so I’m going on rumor only here. However, the evidence for my argument is already there. The slippery slope is already there. If Amazon does what makes sense for it to do, then it may kill Android, not bolster it. Android thrives on choice, an open ecosystem, and the dedication of Google’s brilliant minds. Android is in a perilous place right now and Google needs to make the next 6 months really count. Amazon is not going to save Android. It may sell a bunch of cheap tablets and get a lot of people on Amazon’s services, but it won’t help Google or Android, it’ll only help Amazon. And they don’t really need help.

We don’t need any more cheap tablets. We don’t even need good tablets. What we need now is great tablets.

If there is going to be a white knight for Android, it’s going to be Ice Cream Sandwich.