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?
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.
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.