Kindle Fire: In the Hole Between TouchPad and iPad

In the nearly two years since the iPad was announced, many competitors in the tablet marketplace have come and gone. Some, like the CrunchPad/JooJoo were announced well in advance of the iPad’s arrival but found themselves delayed. Others like the HP slate Steve Ballmer proudly held at CES in 2010 never became the PC to the iPad’s Mac. The marketshare device to the niche alternative. Android, Windows, BlackBerry – strong brands in phones and laptops, despite flooding the market with various shapes, sizes, and price-points have failed to gain sufficient traction to challenge Apple with any sort of unified front.

Even though some companies call semantics about the difference between sales and shipments, look around on a train, plane, or bus. Look in a coffee shop or on a college campus. Take a peek at what your doctor, lawyer, or architect is using. Chances are it’s either an iPad or a Kindle. A multi-function almost-laptop or an ebook reader. At this moment there is no tablet market, there is only a market for iPads and a market serving those who won’t buy an Apple product.

The only company able to generate substantial buzz and follow it up with sales: HP and the TouchPad. Of course, that was after their bizarre cancellation of WebOS products mere weeks after the launch of the TouchPad and a $99 fire-sale price-point. Not exactly a great strategy for those thinking about entering the tablet market.

The Second Division

Bill Gates believed that tablets would become mainstream computing devices. Science fiction has prophesied this for decades as well. Gates pushed Microsoft to develop a pen-driven version of Windows, and for ten years the company successfully rolled out tablets as a niche product. The problem? A heavy device with a difficult interface at a high price-point is going to fight an uphill battle. Microsoft wanted to go right to tablet computers as a successor or an equal alternative to the laptop.

Apple, when announcing the iPad, placed it in the space between the smartphone and the laptop. A bigger screen with a more powerful processor unable to function as a traditional computer. The iPad has only limited multi-tasking capabilities – those it has allow programs to run in the background. This is fine if you want to listen to music while browsing Twitter, writing a document, or editing a photo, but not ideal if you need to have three windows open doing research and making notes along the way. Apple has created a market by selling a device they admit is strictly inferior to a traditional computer in many ways, but superior in others. The intimate experience of a tablet makes the interface almost an extension of the user. Thinking, swiping, and tapping will put the device in your full control.

Amazon, long rumored to be developing an “iPad killer” instead announced an iPad alternative. Like the difference between an evil twin and an alternate, quirky twin, the Kindle Fire is smaller, slower, and cheaper than the iPad. But it can fit in a large pocket, it still has very good battery life, and it has the first fully-baked tablet support system this side of Cupertino.

What has been a struggle for other tablet creators is building a support system. Apps have become the battleground. But when not using apps or the browser, users typically run out of things to do quickly. Branching the Kindle brand into the tablet ecosystem gives users an immediate fallback: books. The Amazon and Kindle brands have deep roots in the reading material market. Amazon also has video: a streaming store to watch movies and television shows on demand. As a kicker, if you’re an Amazon Prime customer, a selection of this content is free of charge. The same service that gives you automatic two-day shipping also provides a service sitting between Netflix and the iTunes store.

Amazon’s music store has evolved from only offering MP3 downloads to “shipping” songs to a digital locker in Amazon’s cloud and providing purchased music as a streaming service. If that isn’t enough, Amazon has a curated app store for Android apps. That flashy interface? It’s sitting atop Android. Convenient how that worked out. Not only does Amazon start with a built-in developer based by using Android, they will have a library of apps designed for the Kindle Fire to highlight at the release.

Amazon has been laying the groundwork for their tablet entry for quite some time, and with each piece came a little closer to Apple’s “all-in-one” iTunes store. The Kindle Fire won’t be the iPad killer that some want it to be, but it stands a good chance at being successful because it has all the killer pieces in place. The Kindle Fire isn’t calling itself an iPad alternative at the same price or an iPad replacement with a hundred dollar savings. No, it’s priced at $199. It has a smaller screen, weaker processor, no cameras, but enough “computer” elements to use the web, listen to music, read books, and watch video. Right in that space between the smartphone and the iPad. November will be an interesting month.

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