Amazon has been a leader in the eBook reader space since it first introduced the Kindle eReader in November 2007. At that point in time, the Kindle had a 6-inch E Ink display that supported just four shades of gray, it included 250MB of storage that could accommodate about 200 eBooks, and it retailed for $399. For the first six months or so, Amazon couldn’t keep the device in stock — it was a smash hit.
Since then, Kindles have gotten thinner and lighter, and the current-generation model features a dramatically improved E Ink Pearl display and 2GB of storage. Amazon’s Kindle can now be had for as little as $79. A second model with a touchscreen display and twice the memory starts at just $99, and its battery lasts for up to two months on a single charge. Amazon doesn’t share sales volumes of its Kindle devices but the company is widely believed to be among the top eReader vendors in the world as it teeters between the No.1 and No.2 spots alongside Barnes & Noble.
But eReaders will only take Amazon so far.
Amazon has been a leader in the online retail space for quite some time, and its line of Kindle eReaders represents its first foray into the hardware game. EBooks are big business for Amazon, but its more recent service additions have also been gaining traction. With new options for purchasing and streaming music and movies, customers had to rely on third party devices — computers, connected TVs, set top boxes and smartphones — to consume this new wave of Amazon content. But why not make it all available on a single Amazon-branded device that picks up where the Kindle left off?
The tablet market posed an amazing opportunity for Amazon. I can’t even recall the last time a market segment saw so much hype and so few success stories, and Amazon identified an opportunity to succeed where others were failing. Instead of building hardware that merely acted as a platter on which to serve the same software countless other vendors were unsuccessfully banking on, Amazon would build an end-to-end experience that covered hardware, software and content. After all, the only other vendor whose tablet offering addresses all three of these crucial areas of the user experience seems to be doing pretty well in the tablet space it redefined in early 2010.
Instead of setting out to build an iPad killer, Amazon set out to build a Kindle Fire.
The term “iPad killer” seems to describe any tablet launched by a popular vendor that cannot draw traffic to a news site unless said site includes a mention of Apple’s iPad in the headlines of stories written about said tablet. That’s really the only discernable link I’ve found between all of the slates that have been deemed iPad killers thus far. Another attribute most of them share, unfortunate though it may be, is that they don’t sell particularly well. There have been a few notable exceptions but in general, it seems these tablets are not well received by consumers or by enterprise customers.
If an iPad killer is a tablet that doesn’t grab people’s attention and often doesn’t sell particularly well, then the Kindle Fire is most certainly not an iPad killer.
Leading up to Amazon’s Kindle Fire, media tablets had for the most part been ill-conceived devices that were seemingly rushed out the door in an effort to capitalize on the hype surrounding the iPad. This strategy is not uncommon in business but in this particular case, companies forgot a key ingredient that drives competition: differentiation. With high price points, similar hardware and lackluster first-generation software (Honeycomb was Google’s first attempt at a tablet OS), the bulk of the iPad’s competition had very little to offer the common consumer that might distinguish it from the iPad in a positive way.
The Kindle Fire is a different beast.
Amazon attacked the tablet market on two fronts. First, it offered differentiation. Google’s Android operating system powers the Fire, but one wouldn’t know it to look at the device. Amazon used the open source Android OS as the framework on which it built its own unique user experience. It will continue its own development of the platform independent of Google’s future builds, and it maintains its own ecosystem outside of Google’s. Amazon has its own app store and its own suite of services.
The other piece to the Kindle Fire puzzle is pricing. At $199, Amazon’s tablet is $300 cheaper than the entry-level iPad and $630 less expensive than the 64GB model with embedded 3G. This was a very smart move by Amazon. The company will release more expensive models in the future — BGR exclusively reported preliminary details surrounding a 10-inch model due to be released next year — but Amazon’s first effort hits an amazing price point that creates a new space in the tablet market. It doesn’t compete with the iPad any more than a 32-inch flat panel Vizio TV competes with a 60-inch Samsung model. It’s a completely different animal.
I have read a number of Kindle Fire reviews — and there were plenty to choose from — that went to great lengths to compare Amazon’s tablet to the iPad. While these comparisons sometimes made for compelling reads and even more compelling headlines, they were not very useful. These devices are both tablets, yes, but to liken one to the other is as useful as likening a Mercedes S Class to a Hyundai Sonata. Both vehicles will get you from A to B, but in reality they serve very different purposes.
The S Class is designed to attract a certain type of customer. It offers utility, luxury and a driving experience that is the result of decades of evolution and many tens of millions of dollars in research and development. The S Class is designed to be seen. It outclasses and outperforms much of the competition, but it is about form as much as it is function. It is also assembled from high-end parts and materials, and it carries a relatively steep price tag to match. You see hundreds of them everywhere you go in metropolitan areas, but unless you have expendable income to throw around, you probably won’t buy one yourself.
The Sonata is designed to make a well-styled, capable sedan accessible to the masses. It looks more refined and performs better than other cars in its price range, and it also offers standard features that competing models do not. Even still, it doesn’t pretend to be an S Class and it most certainly doesn’t set out to kill the S Class.
The Sonata’s body isn’t quite as sleek and sophisticated as the Mercedes sedan, and it doesn’t come with nearly as many standard features. Its interior is also much more modest, forgoing supple leather and expensive woods in favor of more pedestrian materials. It won’t accelerate as quickly, it won’t corner as surely and it probably won’t turn any heads. It is a phenomenal value, however, and it touts a build quality and features that are anything but common on such an affordable car.
After using the device for about a week and a half now, I believe Amazon’s Kindle Fire will succeed where others have failed. The hardware is good but not great. The soft-touch materials are comfortable in the hand but the 4,400 mAh battery that hides within the device makes it a bit too heavy for prolonged reading without resting the tablet on a table or leg. The software is good but not great. It has a nice, simple interface that a wide range of users will be able to navigate easily, but it is not refined. The performance is good but not great. Many functions are fluid, as is game play and video playback, but there are often of hiccups and stutters while opening certain apps and performing other functions.
What did you expect? It’s a Sonata.
At $200, the Kindle Fire is a fantastic buy. It is intuitive and capable, and the integration with Amazon services is well-done. The home screen is divided into four sections: first is a status pane across the top that displays notifications, the time, Wi-Fi status and battery charge, and it provides access to settings. A menu section follows beneath, allowing users to navigation between different core features such as the book reader, music player, apps menu and video player. Next is a large area that lists all recent apps and books in a cover flow-like stream. Finally, there is a favorites section near the bottom where users can pin their most frequently accessed apps and books.
Each integrated app — Books, Music, Video and so on — is split into two sections that can be toggled at the top of the screen. The first is “Cloud,” which displays a list of icons on the shelves beneath it that represent all of the user’s content stored on Amazon’s servers. The second is “Device,” which lists locally stored content. There is also a link to Amazon’s store in the top right corner of each page. While it is all too easy to spend money on the Kindle Fire, I love how well Amazon’s services are integrated into each app.
While on the front page of the Books app, a single tap on an icon opens the book of my choice while a tap on the always-visible store link lets me search, browse and purchase books with ease. The Music app lists all of my content available for playback, and then another Store link takes me to Amazon’s music shop where I can purchase albums or individual tracks. The Video app offers a similar experience, but it also offers integration with Amazon Prime video streaming, Amazon’s Netflix-like service that provides unlimited access to streaming movies and TV shows. Don’t expect to find many new blockbuster movies in there, but the catalog is deep enough to provide a decent range of content.
Amazon’s apps page adheres to the same intuitive format. Apps are organized across wood shelves and a link to the Amazon Appstore can be found in the top right corner. Users won’t have access to all of the content found in Google’s Android Marketplace, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like Apple’s iOS App Store, the Marketplace is packed with garbage. Amazon’s curated approach is appreciated and there is more than enough great content available. I also love that Amazon offers one new paid app for free each day. It makes checking the app store on a daily basis habitual, thus encouraging browsing and ultimately benefiting developers.
The web browser is another bright spot for the Kindle Fire. Amazon’s Silk browser is impressively quick thanks to technology that offloads much of the grunt work to remote servers. Heavy pages seem to take a moment to begin loading as a result, but once the cloud-based portion begins pushing content to the tablet, I find pages load faster than they do on other comparable devices.
The Kindle Fire is not an iPad killer. It doesn’t kill anything, in fact. What it does, however, is offer users a solid experience and a comprehensive catalog of services that make it easy to access existing content and to find new content. It is very, very easy to use, which is something that cannot be said of some other tablets. A young child will be flying around the UI in no time, and his or her grandparents likely won’t take long to figure it out either. Operation is relatively smooth for the most part, but prospective buyers should expect the occasional hiccup from first-generation software running on $200 hardware. Every computer, smartphone and tablet on the planet stutters from time to time, so this is hardly a big deal.
Amazon took its time with the Kindle Fire and it shows. There is plenty of room for improvement, but this first-generation tablet is an intuitive, functional tablet that is as cohesive as it is affordable. It was built as a gateway into the many web-based services Amazon now offers and it succeeds in its mission. It might not kill any Apple products on its way to your door, but I’m sure the media will find plenty more Apple killers in the new year to draw your clicks. In the meantime, the Kindle Fire is a clear winner that will likely find itself atop Amazon’s list of best-sellers for quite some time.