Every so often a product comes along that doesn’t so much invent something new, so much as they make it much more user friendly than those who came before them. Recently that company has often been Apple (although Apple and their minions seem to think Apple invented something new). This time though it is Amazon.
Building on their already substantial eReader empire, Amazon set out to make a device that would appeal to more than just the bookworm. They needed something that could held defend against the erosion of the eInk eReader market, which was being dented on the high end by the Apple iPad and the lower end by Nook Color (and later Nook Tablet), and a plethora of cheap knock off Android based tablets from a number of players. But like anybody that has a dedicated and decent sized user base of their products, they had to do it in a way that didn’t necessarily alienate those users.
So, did they do it?
The biggest deterrent to the tablet market taking off has been price. Even the popular iPad has a price range of $399 – $829. Any decent Android tablet had prices in a similar range (I do not count things like the Archos and other no name brand tablets, because while they cost less, it was because they were junk). The best priced tablet, and that had to be hacked to be useful, was the Nook Color at $249. Not only did Amazon match it… it beat it, becoming the first dual core tablet to come ring in at a mere $199.
Amazon set out to talior Android, not for use as an everyday tablet, but as a means to comsume media. Kindle Books, Amazon Music and Amazon Video at your fingertips. They employed a combination carousel (much like iTunes) and bookshelf metaphors. You can flip through your carousel, and if you want, you can drag frequently used items from the carousel to the shelves for quick and easy access. You can place books, music (albums or songs) as well as movies, both that you own, rent or are free from Amazon Prime to watch with one touch access. The overhaul of the Android OS isn’t simply a top coat, they simplified (or dumbed down, depending on your perspective) everything making it easier for the average consumer to deal with, and not require being or having a technogeek at the ready. This may make is too simplified for some, but for the type of people that “just want it to work and be easy to understand,” Amazon has done it in a way no other manufacturer has done so far.
Despite what Apple thinks (or at least did under Steve Jobs), there is a market for multiple sizes of tablets. For many the bigger sizes are not idea for reading or long term holding for any reason really… because of the weight. The 7 inch Kindle Fire is much lighter and convenient to travel with than an 8.9 inch iPad or 10.1 Motorola Xoom. Amazon hired the same firm that developed the Blackberry Playbook, and what they wound up with is a device that aesthetically looks similar to a Playbook (which isn’t a bad thing, though certainly not sexy), but with a more robust platform to build on.
This is a place where nobody, sans Apple, can compete. The best library of ebooks available, a music library that is every bit as good as iTunes, and a movie library that while not quite up to the level of Netflix, is available with an Amazon Prime membership, which costs less than Netflix on an annual basis, but gives you far more benefits (besides the Streaming movies, you get book borrowing, free 2nd day shipping and more). Both Amazon and Apple are making inroads into these markets, but neither have the full breadth of offerings that Amazon does, nor do either offer the additional product benefits. Besides that, they have their own curated app store taking the far more wide open Android market and making it a safer playground to download apps and not worrying about spyware infested fakes.
Now, I pointed out early on how Amazon broke new ground with pricing. This didn’t come as a surprise to many because Amazon (unlike typical manufacturers) can keep the Kindle Fire on razor thing margins because they make the bulk of their money on the books, movies, and other items you will buy from them. But in order to geta smooth running dual core, slick looking device down to this price, they had to make some compromises. So what are they, and do they matter?
No Google Apps or Play Store – Back when Amazon initially released this tablet with Gingerbread, Google did not have a separate set of approval standards for tablets, and the Kindle Fire did not meet the specs to qualify (nor does it appear that they wanted to) to get the Google Apps (Gmail, Google Calendar, Play Store, etc) on their device. Since they have their own appstore this doesn’t appear to be a big deal, but some will not be thrilled with the barebones type of email app or the Silk web browser.
They also do not offer any third party keyboards to be used on the Fire, which is unfortunate, because products like Thumb Keyboard or Swiftkey 3 Tablet Keyboard make typing on a tablet so much easier. Which brings me to the next thing. The Kindle Fire is all about consuming content and not so much about creation of it. It has no cameras, and no microphone, so using things like Skype or Google Voice is out. No Bluetooth, initially doesn’t seem like that big a deal, until your realize you can’t use wireless headphones or a Bluetooth keyboard with it either.
No expandable storage – They do not offer a 16GB or 32 GB model… only an 8GB, with no expandable storage. As we rely more and more on cloud storage, this doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal… until you have a long flight or are vacationing somewhere that doesn’t have wi-fi access readily available (yes, believe it or not, such places do still exist), and want to download enough music and/or movies (books is no where near as big a deal) to get you through. Then you may find the lack of storage an issue. This won’t affect everybody obviously, but you should take it into consideration if you want your content available at times you don’t have wi-fi.
Is the Kindle Fire the device for you? It depends on your purpose. If you want an upscale reader that does books, music and movies well, then it is an exceptionally good deal at a very good price. If you want a true tablet experience that allows you to be productive as well consume content, then you have to look long and hard at the tradeoffs to decide if the lower price point is worth the tradeoffs, and with the Google Nexus 7 tablet on the horizon, it may be worth waiting to see if you need to accept those tradeoffs at all.