Amazon's new Kindle Fire tablet is thicker than the iPad, lacks a camera and has measly storage space. It can't connect to a 3G wireless network and its battery life is average at best.
Still, the Kindle Fire may be poised to steal coveted marketshare from the iPad, so far largely immune to the onslaught from major manufacturers such as Samsung, Motorola and Sony. Nearly two years after the iPad's debut, Apple still commands the lion's share of the tablet market.
What distinguishes the Kindle Fire from other iPad competitors and gives Amazon's tablet an edge has little to do with its design -- barebones at best -- and everything to do with its wallet-friendly pricetag and direct line to Julia Roberts and Elvis Presley, analysts say. Thousands of books, movies, music and games from Amazon's digital media storefront integrate seamlessly with the Kindle Fire, making it the first tablet, besides the iPad, to marry hardware with a robust content library.
"Until now, iTunes has been pretty much the only option offering a true end-to-end experience where you can find content you like, buy content, and access that content on a device, instantly," said Jeremy Toeman, chief product officer for Dijit, a digital media company. "With the Kindle Fire, Amazon is now the first viable alternative to that. It's a place where you can buy a device and easily access all the content you want to consume as well."
Tech industry behemoths have tried to best Apple with tablets, like the Motorola Xoom and BlackBerry Playbook, that offer more bells and whistles than the iPad for a comparable price.
With the Kindle Fire, Amazon aims to sidestep Apple's key strengths with an approach that distinguishes the device from the iPad and its herd of rivals. Rather than attempting to outdo the iPad's sleek hardware -- a tall order -- Amazon has contented itself with a $199 tablet, half as expensive as the cheapest iPad, that is functional, but not fabulous. It's simple, affordable and just does what's needed, an appealing alternative for individuals who prefer not to pay hundreds for an iDevice.
At the same time, Amazon has chosen to compete with Apple on content, betting that people will settle for a tablet that does less, and costs less, if accessing music and movies is simple and cheap. Experts say it's a savvy play.
"Consumers are not buying a device because it has a dual core processor or it has 16GB of RAM or an AMOLED display," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Gartner, a research firm. "They're buying it because they want to watch movies, listen to songs and play Angry Birds."
"Where Amazon separates itself from the Barnes and Noble Nook and even other Android devices is that it has content and services," Gartenberg added.
These days, as tech giants increasingly double as media providers, buying a smartphone or tablet also means buying into a specific ecosystem of content and services, explain analysts, who note that consumers covet an end-to-end experience that puts their favorite blockbusters and Hollywood hits at their fingertips.
While non-iPad tablets offer access to movies and music, unlocking content on these devices can be clunky and time-intensive next to the instantaneous iTunes, which peddles everything from apps and TV episodes to bestsellers and Britney Spears' songs. Amazon, like Apple, has interwoven its media storefront with its tablet in a bold move that suggests Amazon has both the iPad and iTunes in its crosshairs. The low cost of the Kindle Fire could drive consumers into Amazon's arms and, as the retailer hopes, catalyze content shopping sprees that swell the web giant's coffers and lock users into storing their e-goods with Amazon.
"The thing about these tablets is what's on the other end of the network is as important as what you hold in your hand," said Ezra Gottheil, a senior analyst with Technology Business Research. "What makes the iPad work is that people can get movies, apps and content, just by plugging it in to the iTunes Store. Amazon is offering the same solution."
Amazon has content, and lots of it, to put on the Kindle Fire. Users can tap into a digital Newsstand stocked with more than 400 premium magazines, as well as a library of thousands of ebooks. Amazon boasts 17 million songs in its collection, nearly 13,000 streaming movies and TV shows, and a curated selection of apps from Pandora, Netflix, ESPN and others. By comparison, iTunes hosts more than 200,000 ebooks, more than 20 million songs, and in excess of 500,000 apps, as well as its own Newsstand and video rental service. Google has been growing its own content collection, but was late to the game: Google Music, for example, launched to the public just last week, four years after Amazon's online music store and eight years after Apple's.
Reviewers note that Amazon has made purchasing media front and center on its device. The Kindle Fire is "a fiendishly effective shopping portal in the guise of a 7-inch slate," wrote one reviewer. Another observed, "Amazon is "definitely presenting a smoother path to buying content than any of the other guys."
"For the purposes of content consumption, the Kindle Fire will be the ideal device," Gartenberg said. "Before Amazon went into the business of building a tablet, they built out an ecosystem of books and music, they put up an app store...and they launched streaming services. That really sets them apart."
But some experts maintain the Kindle Fire isn't a direct competitor to the iPad, arguing that the new tablet's limited capabilities and lower pricetag put it in another category altogether. The Kindle Fire has been met by mixed reviews, and users who can afford to spend upwards of $500 on a tablet aren't likely to be deciding between Apple and Amazon, analysts say.
"The truth is the Kindle Fire doesn't really compete with the iPad," Gartenberg said. "You can't compare them because they're designed for different audiences, different functions and different price points. The iPad can do an awful lot more than a Kindle can do."
While it seems unlikely that Amazon's tablet will bring the iPad to its knees, analysts note the tablet will take a bite out of Apple's sales this holiday season -- and beyond. Gottheil estimates that the iPad will lose a million units in sales to the Kindle Fire this quarter, as price-sensitive shoppers defect to Amazon's offering, which could chip away, bit-by-bit, at Apple's lead. Less than a month after it was unveiled, the Kindle Fire has already skyrocketed in popularity to become the second most-desired tablet after the iPad, according to a study by ChangeWave research.
Toeman argued that for people who use their tablets for entertainment, rather than as PC substitutes, the two devices are close rivals.
"For the consumer buying a tablet as a portable, media-consumption device, the iPad and Kindle Fire are highly competitive," Toeman said.
There's far more at stake than tablet market share, however. These devices have become a valuable platform through which web companies sell content, and the battle over tablets is by extension a war over the media marketplace. In choosing the Kindle Fire over the iPad, users are potentially making a longer-term commitment to sourcing and storing their content on Amazon.com. On the flip side, Apple stands to suffer a double whammy: losing sales of the iPad as well as sales on iTunes.
Analysts say that Amazon is pursuing a "razor and blades" marketing strategy with the Kindle Fire by giving the tablet away, practically at cost, as a way of increasing its sales of books, music and movies.
Amazon's chief financial officer Thomas Szkutak said as much during a recent call with investors.
"What we're seeing certainly is that once customers purchase a Kindle and are carrying around this really massive selection at their fingertips, they're buying more content," Szkutak said. "So we're not just thinking about the economics of the device and the accessories. We think about the content."
Take a look through the slideshow (below) to view the Kindle Fire's 9 biggest features.
The new black 7.5-inch tablet is an in inch taller than the original Kindle e-reader, and weighs more than twice as much (14.6 ounces as opposed to 5.98 ounces). However, it's still significantly lighter than the hefty iPad 2, which weighs in at around 21.3 ounces. That said, the Kindle Fire a very streamlined little device. Other than a USB port for charging, there's not much else--no SD card slot, camera, or HDMI port. Engadget notes this could be somewhat inconvenient for users: "What it won't have, though, is the number of physical inputs. It'll make do with just a power button and nothing more -- if you want to turn down the volume you'll need to dive into the status bar. Whether or not that proves to be an annoyance in the long-run remains to be seen, but we're thinking it will be."
The Kindle Fire has a 1 GHz dual-core processor, which will allow for a super fast user interface. It has 8 GB of storage, significantly less than the iPad, which comes with at least 16GB, but as with Amazon's e-readers, you can store your books, movies and music in the Amazon Cloud thanks to Whispersync, which increases its storage capacity. The battery lasts for approximately eight hours, two hours less than both iPad and Blackberry Playbook.
The Kindle Fire is set to start shipping November 15th and is available for pre-order starting September 28.
The Kindle Fire will retail for $199, less than half the price of the iPad, which starts at $499, or the Galaxy Tab 10.1, which also starts at $499.
The only way to get online with the Kindle Fire is via Wi-Fi -- there's no 3G connectivity. 9to5 Mac wonders if this is because this first version of Kindle Fire was rushed in order to be out in time for the holidays. There are rumors that Amazon is already working on a new version of the tablet to be released in the beginning of next year--it could be that that one will have 3G or 4G connectivity. Other tablets, like the iPad, can connect to the 3G networks, and some, like the Motorola Xoom and HTC Evo View 4G, can even connect to speedier 4G networks.
The Kindle Fire comes with a super-fast web-browser, Amazon Silk, that is a "split-browser", meaning it runs both on the tablet's internal hardware and on the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, Amazon's massive server fleet. Each time you go online, it automatically decides which actions to run on the Kindle itself and which to run in the cloud, with the ultimate goal of helping you browse as quickly as possible. This decision is based on things like the speed of your Internet connection and what type of page you're trying to view.
The Kindle Fire is powered by a modified version of Google's Android operating system, giving users access to Android apps and games--though according to the Associated Press, the Kindle Fire's app selection will be limited to the Amazon Appstore, where you can test the apps out before buying them using the company's online simulator. It sounds like Amazon is pretty confident in their apps, and they should be since according to their website, each app is tested on the tablet to make sure it works correctly.
Users get seamless access to all of Amazon's content. This is no small thing, as it includes over 100,000 movies and TV shows on Amazon Instant, over 17 million songs on Amazon MP3, more than 1 million e-books, as well as hundreds of magazines, newspapers, and graphic novels. As AdAge notes, the Kindle Fire "will come out of the box begging consumers to dive into its content capabilities, arriving with a free 30-day subscription to the Amazon Prime streaming video service and free three-month subscriptions to digital editions of Conde Nast magazines including Vanity Fair, GQ and Glamour." The Kindle Fire will feature a newsstand showcasing magazines and newspapers from publishers such as Conde Nast and Hearst. In addition, users will get the Whispersync function that is already present on other Amazon devices (As TechRadar explains, Whispersync "syncs your progress as you read a book on the Kindle device so that when you access it from your computer, your iPhone, or whatever device you're on next, you're always in the right place."). But starting with the Kindle Fire, Whispersync not only remembers where you are in your book, but also syncs movies and TV shows. When you return, you are automatically taken back to where you left off regardless of what Amazon device you are on.
The modified Android operating system is already getting some pretty good reviews. The folks at Gizmodo were surprised at how good looking it was. "Amazon's not exactly a company with a keen design eye; their homepage still looks like it has one leg stretched into the 90s. But the Fire's home screen and sub-menus are detailed without being overwhelming, and simply pretty. For its purposes, Amazon's cooked up something better than Honeycomb," Gizmodo wrote. According to This Is My Next, the OS is very fast, but also very different from Android 2.3 from which it was derived. "To say, Amazon has done a bit of work on top of Android is large understatement," notes This Is My Next. "Just like the Nook Color, there are very few traces of the Android 2.3 you are familiar with."