Kindle Fire: Is and Isn't

The new Kindle device has gotten some rather interesting coverage in the 36 hours since its release. However, much of that press has focused on what the device isn’t. For example, “it isn’t an iPad killer.” Also, “it isn’t running the newest version of Android.” These comments sort of miss the point. Let’s understand exactly what the Kindle Fire is.

A low-cost media consumption device.

It isn’t a “tablet,” let alone an “Android tablet.” In fact, the word “tablet” isn’t mentioned once on the Kindle Fire’s product page. It is a device that allows you to consume content, just like last year’s Kindle. It even costs about the same as last year’s Kindle ($199 vs $189). The only difference is that this one allows you to consume a heck of a lot more types of content.

It is clear that Amazon has been trying to include rich content in the Kindle for quite some time. The problem is that the e-Ink display is poorly suited to active content, so they had to switch to an LCD to enable this for real. Furthermore, the mobile market is so saturated with platforms that it is difficult to get app developers to program on yet another platform. As such, the Amazon App Store was a brilliant move on Amazon’s part. By building an app store on the sly and releasing it before their own device came out, they essentially short-circuited this part of the curve. People can buy a Kindle Fire and play Angry Birds from day one (and everyone knows that’s the only game anyone ever plays).

But it isn’t an iPad Killer
So let’s look at some of the “isn’t”s. The Kindle Fire isn’t an iPad killer. Nor does it need to be. The iPad has sold phenomenally, beating everyone’s expectations and making Apple the most valuable company in the world. However, I don’t actually know that many people who own iPads. $499 is a lot of money to spend on a device that’s not a computer, especially if you already own a laptop. I am the only person in my immediate family who has an iPad. This is not to say that the iPad sales number are invented, just that there are A LOT of people who still don’t own iPads (and don’t plan to buy them).

Amazon found something curious with the Kindle. The more they dropped the price, the more they sold. Almost everyone would want a Kindle if he could afford one. Amazon doesn’t release sales numbers for the Kindle, but they do admit that the Kindle is their bestselling product, and that they are selling more digital books than physical books. I will tell you something else that’s interesting - every member of my immediate family owns a Kindle, and we all use them frequently. The Kindle isn’t as sexy as the iPad, but it is more utilitarian.

So a $199 7-inch tablet won’t compete with the iPad - it will reach entire new markets that the iPad could never enter. The HP Touchpad debacle was just that - a debacle, but it did prove that people will buy anything if the price is low enough (if you don’t believe me, look at some of the crap on Woot, and make sure to read the discussion forum). The $199 Kindle Fire is a much better device than the $99 Touchpad, at least from a software perspective. Amazon’s products pretty much just work (more on that later). Sure, some people will still choose the iPad for its 9.7-inch screen and better application catalog, but the Kindle Fire will work just fine at its intended use case: consuming books, movies, and the occasional round of Angry Birds.

It isn’t Android
So the Kindle Fire isn’t an Android device. And maybe that’s a good thing. I worked for Google for three years, and fully support the concept of Android. However, I happen to own an Android device, which spontaneously reboots at least once a day (it’s a Droid 2). I also know that the Droid 2 as initially released was only somewhat usable, and that the only reason we prayed daily for an update to Gingerbread was because we hoped that it would finally fix the phone (it did - mostly). Every year when a new version of Android comes out, people don’t think “I’m excited about all of the new features.” They think, “maybe this release will make my phone just work. If not, I can always upgrade to the iPhone once my contract runs out.”

So the Kindle Fire is based on Android, but it isn’t Android. That’s actually a good thing - 99% of the people out there won’t care that it isn’t Android so long as they can watch their movies and read their books (and beat up a few deserving pigs from time to time). I’m sure that someone will quickly get stock Android running, but I would bet that it doesn’t work as well as the default OS.

So, in conclusion, I think that Amazon will sell a ton of Kindle Fires, and I kind of wonder how much money they eat on every device they sell. The only thing I personally regret is that Amazon couldn’t somehow release a version with built-in 3G Internet access. And that they released so many new models, which means that I have to choose which one to buy this year…