The Kindle Fire: A Worthy Competitor?

Amazon has finally announced their long-awaited entry into the tablet market. Rumors have been circling for months now, including a well-documented look into the device that MG Siegler got when he actually held the then-unannounced device.

The device is called the Kindle Fire, and it’s going to enter the market with a bang. How does it stack up to the iPad, though? Let’s discuss.

Physical Properties

The Kindle Fire is a 7-inch tablet with a familiar industrial design. The face of the device is, expectedly, largely taken up by the screen. If you see a resemblance to the BlackBerry PlayBook, it’s because the two devices were created by the same design team. Until someone has held a final retail product, we can’t be sure whether or not the Fire will feel premium compared to other tablets, but I would place money on the bet that it won’t feel as premium as the iPad.

The Kindle Fire's screen should impress as much as the iPad's.

The Kindle Fire's screen should impress as much as the iPad's.

Fortunately, the Fire has some nice things going for it. The screen uses the same in-plane switching (IPS) technology as the iPad, promising excellent viewing angles and crisp detail. As the screen is the most important aspect of a tablet this should satisfy most customers, especially at its inconceivably low price point. While this may not be a deal-breaker for some, the Fire reportedly has a two-point multi-touch screen; the iPad, by contrast, can handle up to ten input-points. Hopefully two will be enough to carry the Fire and insure that users don’t notice a significant lag.

Besides that, the Fire is a fairly run-of-the-mill device, offering a dual-core processor and 8GB of onboard storage. Instead of trying to impress with hardware, Amazon is clearly trying to meet a low price-point while also offering the best screen possible. Where the device really differentiates itself is with the software.

Software

Technically the Kindle Fire is running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the device. Amazon has customized the interface and operating system to the point where it doesn’t feel or look remotely like an Android device, utilizing the OS as a back-end tool instead of a prominent feature.

The Kindle Fire's home screen in landscape mode.

The Kindle Fire's home screen in landscape mode.

The Fire runs around a prominent visual metaphor that can almost be described as a carousel within a bookshelf. All of your content is easily scrollable along a middle ‘shelf’, throwing your books, movies, apps, etc. into one, easily scrollable place. You can also access your recent items and ‘favorite’ apps or books on a lower shelf. In some ways I believe this will help the average consumer, but I think that cycling through to find your Facebook app amid a sea of other content could get old, quickly. The Fire will require careful curation in order to avoid becoming too cluttered.

From what we’ve seen the Fire is responsive, and doesn’t appear to suffer from the same lag as other Android devices. I imagine that this is partly because of Amazon’s hardware running a phone-optimized OS on a tablet device, but I believe that it also has to do with Amazon’s deep customizations of the device. As I said above, the Fire is technically Android, but to consumers that won’t matter; everything is custom-designed and bears little resemblance to anything else currently on the market.

The Amazon Ecosystem

Here is where the Fire draws near the iPad and surpasses other devices on the market. If anyone has a library of content that can match (or, in some cases, surpass) Apple, it’s Amazon. They have access to streaming movies, music, movies to purchase or rent, magazines, apps, and most importantly a huge catalog of books.

Millions of books. Songs, movies, and TV shows are also available.

Millions of books. Songs, movies, and TV shows are also available.

Indeed, the Fire is all about encouraging users to interact with Amazon’s content stores. Reports have come out that Amazon is actually selling the Fire at about a loss of $1 USD per device. It’s clear that their goal is to make money on their content instead, similar to their current strategy with the rest of the Kindle lineup.

Users will see huge benefits from this. At its pricepoint, the Fire offers such a deep media experience that anyone who sees a tablet as a content-only device will be more than happy to fork over the money for a Fire. With so much content available from a central, easy-to-access location that doesn’t require syncing with a computer or convoluted work-arounds (or relying on other stores) I can see the Fire being a huge success.

But What Does it Mean for the iPad?

This is a tricky one, and probably the most important question in the mind of our readers. Can the iPad and the Fire co-exist? Is the Fire an iPad-killer, at long last? Well, yes and no, in that order.

See, the Fire has many things going for it, as I’ve outlined above. I’ve mentioned the low price but haven’t given an exact figure, because I believe it may well be the most important aspect of the product. The Fire retails for $199 USD, less than half the price of the iPad. This price is clearly meant to say two things:

  1. That you can afford the Kindle Fire. You’re getting a decent device with a large media catalog for less than half the price of the main competition.
  2. You can own both an iPad and a Fire. We’ll even make it easier on your wallet.

That, dear readers, is where the Fire aims to be. Amazon isn’t even trying to ‘kill’ the iPad. They’re saying, ‘look. We know that you’re king of the hill, so we won’t try to dent your customer base’. Amazon seeks to hit the market that is too wary to buy an iPad based on its price and to also appeal to current iPad owners that may want a second device based on portability and the extensive Amazon store.

Amazon has learned what other tablet-makers haven’t yet. They know that they probably won’t beat Apple when it comes to those looking for a full-featured tablet, so they aren’t even trying. By choosing not to compete with Apple, Amazon is going to beat the other manufacturers. And that’s fine with them.