Mr. Universal Avatar Posted on 10/20/2011 by Mr. Universal

Amazon's tablet is consumer-friendly, packed with content, and priced to move. Will the Kindle catch Fire against the competition?

Written by Nathan Evans (managing editor)

But will it catch Fire?

Another day, another Android-based tablet is announced. This is the part where you’d normally read the words “iPad Killer” topping websites shamelessly trying to ape web traffic and bring the fanboy faithful to church. The phrase has become the official (and irrational) mantra by many in the tech world, chanted with near-religious fervor as they launch into tirades about why the [insert tablet name] will destroy Apple’s tablet because it was [insert latest tech buzzword] and Apple doesn’t. Despite their squealing they’ve almost never gotten it right, yet they continue to launch their attacks with little shame or consequence as they practice the art of the aftermarket obvious.

Of course, this makes the absence of the phrase following Amazon’s unveiling of their Android-powered Kindle Fire tablet all the more baffling, as it’s really the first non-Apple tablet that actually has a running chance of not just surviving alongside the iPad, but actually thriving. Let’s not forget that the last time a significantly underpowered rival, one that eschewed bleeding-edge tech and industry-standard features to appeal to mass-market users, was Nintendo and their motion-control packing Wii, which positioned itself against a lethal pair of high-definition twins built for power and domination. Despite the naysayers, the console went on to dominate the industry, selling more hardware and software units than both of its competitors combined. Oh, and shipping to retail at half their price didn’t hurt, either.

With the iPad and most leading-edge Android tablets starting at $499, having an entry-level price of just $199 sure sounds nice.

Speaking of competitors, everyone from Motorola, Samsung, Asus, Acer, and many others have all failed to even bruise Apple’s dominance in the increasingly lucrative tablet market. HP’s decision to kill off their doomed TouchPad (with a $99 fire sale) sparked an unprecedented demand for a non-Apple tablet, as the tech world finally realized what everyone else knew from the beginning: make it cheap enough and we’ll be more than happy to buy, buy, and buy some more. While there have been inexpensive tablets in the past, they’ve essentially offered users crappier versions of the same crappy experience they’ve already shunned.

For those addicted to the latest processors and bleeding-edge technology, the Kindle Fire probably isn’t for you. And that’s apparently just fine by Amazon, which has read the same tea leaves as its Cupertino competition and has come up with a strikingly similar game plan: appeal to the crowd. The comparisons to industry champ Apple and their best-selling iPad are obvious; company CEO Jeff Bezos took to the stage in a very Jobs-like fashion, not to tout the hardware itself but what it could do for consumers, effectively let them consume inside one of the world’s largest walled gardens of content. Amazon's official product page is filled with pictures descriptions that both sounded like and took shots at Apple, so think what you will.

Technically speaking, the Kindle Fire is hardly a beast, but its internals should more than adequate for its intentions. Powered by a 1GHz Dual-Core processor with 512MB RAM (hardly a slouch), there’s 8GB of internal memory for storage, and a 7" multi-touch IPS display with 1024 x 600 pixel resolution at 169 ppi. Amazon promises up to 8 hours max battery life under the right conditions. There not much in the way of extra goodies, apart from a micro-USB and 3.5 mm audio jack connectors, including built-in 802.11b/g/n wireless support.

You can almost smell the inevitable future hardware revision Amazon undoubtedly has in the works if it manages to take off. Not included are cameras, microphone, Bluetooth support, GPS, 3G connectivity, or a screen that supports more than 2 fingers at a time (the iPad allows up to 11 different points). Also, a few of its touted network features like integration with Amazon Prime and its propriety Silk "split browser" sound like they’ll be far more useful on data-dependent 3G/4G mobile networks than those requiring a handy WiFi service nearby. When you're trying to convince people to start living life in the cloud, you'll want to make it a lot easier than tethering them to router-dependent wireless.

Keep in mind these weren’t philosophical design omissions based on preference, but conscious excisions to get its price-point down to acceptable levels on an untried product. Not only is this a smart decision, but totally in keeping with how Amazon has scaled-up their Kindle e-readers over the years to meet consumer demand.

Given all that, the Kindle Fire won’t be competing against the iPad 2, or just about any Android tablet, in the power department anytime soon, nor are its lack of productivity features likely to find much traction in the enterprise markets. On a feature-for-feature basis, the Kindle Fire is a closer cousin to Barnes and Noble’s Nook Color than a true tablet, whose vigorous adoption of the e-book phenomenon saw the book giant quickly snatching up to 30% of the e-reader market and becoming the best-selling Android tablet (so far). It also helped rescue the company’s failing stock from catastrophe, positioning them to be a real power player in the upcoming e-book wars for the long haul.

It was a necessary, too, as their last remaining rival, Borders Bookstores, delayed their decision to enter the market with the lackluster Kobo line-up of e-readers, which turned out to be the death knell for the company; they announced they were shuttering their remaining brick ‘n mortar stores in July.

Another aspect of Amazon’s Kindle Fire is how uncomfortable it’s bound to make the more obsessed Android zealots of the world, many of whom had been counting on a healthy continued relationship between the online retail giant and Google’s ever-growing mobile OS. Amazon’s adoption of Android is something of a doubled-edged sword, as Google may have been touting their much-hyped Honeycomb OS as the future of tablets, but poor reviews and even poorer sales of tablets running the software tell a different story.

Kindle Fire runs a “version” of Android, but ostensibly, as it’s not a version that you’re probably familiar with. Amazon’s tablet runs a tricked-out version of Gingerbread (i.e. the smartphone OS), complete with an all-new interface that bears little resemblance to Google’s scrumptiously named Android flavors. The official product page only lists the word “Android” exactly once (yet says “iPad” at least four times). It also won’t let users connect to Google’s own Android Marketplace, effectively locking you into Amazon’s own curated ‘walled garden’ ecosystem, and a lack of ports probably means no side-loading Apps, either. Factor in the inevitable fragmentation caused by the Fire’s lack of built-in camera and microphone tech and you’ve got ‘yet another’ version of Android out there to deal with.

While this may sound like a nightmare scenario for Android believers, Amazon has smartly realized that most humans prefer using actual programs instead of decorating their desktops with largely useless bits and pieces of digital clutter. This means that excessive customization, aftermarket rooting, and fancy widgets are likely to take a backseat to actually enjoying your music, movie, book, and game collection with little fuss or technical know-how.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Amazon’s latest gizmo is going to take off or even – forgive the pun – catch fire. Adopting an IPS display negates the original Kindle’s defining feature – being able to read on a beautiful e-ink display in direct sunlight. Will users opt for Amazon’s smaller, content curated “walled garden” ecosystem over Apple’s considerably more populated one? Will they choose Amazon Prime’s video streaming service over Netflix, which isn’t likely to show up on the Fire? Will many of today’s more bleeding-edge games even make an appearance on the Fire’s relatively underpowered hardware?

Another big question mark is just how useful the Kindle Fire will be for those looking to create their own content, especially those scores of writers, musicians, and business executives who’ve been courted by a growing number of power apps on Apple – and to a lesser degree Android – platforms that have made cutting the laptop cord considerably less painful. Nothing I’ve seen in Amazon’s planning for their new tablet even hints this is a market they’re interested in right now, as the Fire is definitely built for consumption first and foremost.

Amazon is parlaying the original Kindle platform's focus on books as their starting point with the Fire, much like Apple was able to leverage their original iPod's emphasis on music to bigger and better things. And it just might work. In an emerging market that has shown us time and time again that content comes first, Amazon is making a very wise choice by embracing the rest of the world of humans who prefer their technology easy to use and their favorite content a few swipes away. From what we’ve seen so far, the Kindle Fire may not be the mythological “iPad Killer”, but it does seem to be a powerhouse of a content-consuming monster, and the only other tablet that has a real chance at coexisting alongside its fruity competition.

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