Ask any tech-savvy hipster about the biggest, most influential companies in the business, and they'll quickly rattle off names like Apple, Google, and possibly Microsoft. But the quietest and stealthiest of the tech influencers is about to come roaring out of the gates this week. And if the name Amazon.com doesn't ignite feelings of excitement quite yet, just wait. It will.
On Tuesday, Amazon will launch two important new Kindle devices, the Kindle Touch and the Kindle Fire. The first is a direct follow-up to the now-classic Kindle eBook reader, which first launched in 2007. Since then, prices have come down dramatically, from $400 that year to under $100 now, and the design keeps getting nicer. But the basics have remained the same: a gray-scale E-Ink screen, superior text display, but not so great for graphics or complex layouts.
The Kindle Fire is far more interesting. Here, Amazon is finally offering a device that can keep the Apple iPad at bay. That's true even though the Fire, from a specs-sheet perspective, could hardly be considered directly competitive. But the Amazon Fire is a color tablet computer, just like the iPad. It offers access to tons of apps and content from a well-stocked online store and corresponding ecosystem, just like the iPad. And it costs just $200.
That's nothing like the iPad.
Apple's iPad has been credited for establishing a new product category, though it's not hard to imagine that these devices and more traditional PCs will simply evolve in lockstep until they've become different takes on the same concept, much like Macs and PCs are today. But iPads are expensive—very expensive. The line starts at $500 and goes all the way up to $830. That's Apple pricing, folks, and it's astonishing that no other company has been able to undercut Apple with a competitive device.
That's where Amazon comes in. According to most early reviews, the Fire doesn't compete head-to-head with the iPad. It doesn't offer a camera, microphone, Bluetooth, optional 3G wireless, or GPS, for example. Its 7" widescreen display is perhaps less ideal for traditional computing tasks than the iPad's bigger 4:3 10" display. And Amazon isn't interested in turning the Fire into a full-fledged computer, as Apple seems to be racing toward with iPad. The Fire, instead, is all about consuming content.
But the Kindle Fire provides most of what people are looking for in a tablet and it does so at a far lower price than the iPad. In fact, you could purchase three Kindle Fires for the same price as a single 32GB iPad. Three.
This commodity pricing is exactly the strategy that Microsoft and its partners used to undercut Apple in the PC business decades ago, and many expect Amazon to succeed with tablets for similar reasons. But the key special ingredient here is the Amazon ecosystem, and this is the reason that other players, including the many companies that sell Android-based tablets, have failed. Amazon has the same kind of online store, with the same voluminous collection of content, that Apple has. It is one of the very few companies that can go toe-to-toe with Apple in this way. And that fact, combined with a product price that isn't just lower but crazy-lower, puts Amazon over the top.
I've used and reviewed virtually every Kindle that's come down the pike, and my experience with past devices suggests that this first Kindle Fire will be lacking in some ways. It will be bulky, slow, and inconsistent. It will be less than ideal. But the Kindle Fire, like that first-gen Kindle from 2007, includes the spark of something that will be long-lasting and market-changing. And unlike that device from four years ago, this time Amazon got the price right too.
So I'll be reviewing the Kindle Fire (and the associated Kindle Touch, which is based on the old E-Ink display) as soon as possible. But it's already clear that this device is a disrupter and that, hyperbole aside, Amazon is about to remake the tablet market. I'm curious to see how things look a year from now.