Amazon’s New Fire is Kindled

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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