All I could think after reading the announcement for Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet this morning was: "this is what we've been waiting for." Because it is. Amazon gets tablets, believe it or not. And despite the flagging success of the Amazon Appstore, the company has done what no other tablet manufacturer has even come remotely close to: matching access to Apple's curated content library (iTunes + App Store) at a price nearly everyone can afford.
Living In The Amazon Ecosystem
I buy my music from Amazon. I buy episodes of TV shows. I rent movies. I buy Kindle books - and I don't even own a Kindle. Sure, I'm not a big fan of the Amazon Appstore, but a free app a day is a great deal, and it's not like it's terribly lacking for selection in terms of major titles. And, it doesn't have a ton of spam in it. This is what people want: one-stop shopping. And for those of us in the US, Amazon's got it. Not to mention, it's just as good as, if not better than, Apple's library of content.
Other tablet manufacturers have piggy-backed on Google's growing library of movies and books (it's the largest e-library on earth), but Google Movies is only supported on a handful of (non-rooted) tablets, and Google Books has nowhere near the user base of Amazon's Kindle. There's also the lack of any decent music and television show purchase outlets on Android (aside from Amazon MP3 for music), and the fact that none of these things are very tightly integrated into any Android tablet on the market.
Amazon has clearly looked at what people do on tablets, and started creating an experience from there - meaning Honeycomb was not an option from the get go. They browse the web, they read, consume music and video content, and play games. The tablet isn't some computer stopgap - it's a portable entertainment system. People use them on trains, planes, at lunch, in coffee shops, and on the couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Amazon has eschewed the notion that tablets are about productivity, business, or communication. Cameras? Don't need 'em. 3G? I'll pass on another data plan bill. A giant screen? People want something they can hold while sipping on a coffee or talking on the phone. Android Market access? Let's face it, the Honeycomb-optimized Market (and yes, I know it doesn't run Honeycomb) may not be the ghost town it was 6 months ago, but the apps aren't exactly pouring in. And most of the really good ones are on Amazon's Appstore, anyway.
The naysayers will likely point at the "dated" OS (it's an older version of Android) powering the Kindle Fire, curse its lack of Google Apps, decry its custom UI overlay as an abomination unto Android, and declare Amazon's inevitable DRM an oppressive measure on par with exile to Stalin's Gulag. There's plenty of geeks (we're all geeks here, too) out there who probably won't buy one for all of the aforementioned reasons. But this isn't something for geeks. Much as the Kindle made eReaders affordable and accessible to the public at large, the Fire stands to do the same for tablets.
Do you think your mother is going to care that the Fire has a UI overlay if it still lets her read Jane Austen and watch Grey's Anatomy? Or that your 12-year-old will be really disappointed that he gets Angry Birds, but not the official Gmail app? Give me a break. The simplicity will make things easier for 95% of the population, and the Fire still does more than most people (like us) thought possible for $200 (maybe excluding HP's $99 TouchPad bargain basement blowout) - and that should scare the pants off every tablet manufacturer out there, Apple included.
Of course, the iPad's market domination probably isn't going anywhere any time soon. The Kindle Fire doesn't have everything it takes to topple what remains the only truly popular tablet among mainstream consumers. But if it delivers what it promises, it's sure going to make a dent, have no doubt about that. The price point for the Fire still has my jaw on the floor: $200 for a dual-core processor and an IPS display with strengthened glass? I'm getting one this holiday season - assuming they aren't sold out, as I highly suspect there'll be shortages.
The Amazon Model
So, why hasn't anyone else built anything like this? I think the plain truth here is that no one else could build a tablet like this (even Google), because no one else does what Amazon does. Its massive EC2 cloud computing and content delivery network along with a huge library of movies, TV shows (which has recently added free streaming Fox shows for Prime members), music, and books makes it a digital media mega-giant. The Kindle app for Android is pretty decent, and Amazon MP3 isn't shabby, either - but I always wondered why Amazon hadn't announced plans for an Android Amazon Instant Video app. And now I know.
It will be interesting to see if Amazon keeps Instant Video limited to the Kindle Fire - which seems very likely to happen because of licensing and DRM concerns.
Amazon can also justify what is likely a razor-thin profit margin on the Fire's hardware with the fact that almost every single person who buys one will be giving Amazon essentially overhead-free content revenue through their purchases of books, movies, and music. Why else would you buy one? And yes, as a side note, I understand the hacking community will have a very large interest in this thing, but they're a minority, and not really relevant to this part of the discussion.
Finally, Amazon's developers can optimize the user experience to exacting standards, because they know exactly what software the device will run for most tasks. This is a massive advantage over Honeycomb tablets, where manufacturers rely on Android to keep the user experience sailing smoothly for the most part, because 3rd party apps are doing the work. By writing its own apps (and using an open-source version of Android), and knowing the exact hardware they'll be running on, Amazon can tweak and tinker every aspect of the basic user experience to its satisfaction. No other Android tablet maker that is a real market player, aside from Barnes & Noble, has really done that. So, where does that leave those other Android tablet makers?
Manufacturers, We Need To Have A Talk...
I have a question for every other tablet manufacturer out there: Why in the heck do I want your $350-$600+ product anymore? I'm dead serious. What do I stand to gain? A bigger screen? That's not exactly a compelling reason, considering Amazon could probably pretty easily come out with a 9" or larger version of the Fire if they thought it would actually sell. Who knows, Amazon may already be working on it. Vanilla Android? Will Ice Cream Sandwich be that much different from (or better than) Honeycomb on tablets (we're guessing "no")? Better hardware? That gets us nerdy types excited, but if the Fire browses smoothly and plays HD video and most games, I'm not really concerned with the exact specifications - it just needs to work as intended.
I enjoy the freedom vanilla Android has to offer in terms of customization. But I'm not going to pay for that freedom, and honestly, it's only a matter of time until someone hacks the Fire to run stock Android, if you're that dead-set on having it be a "pure Android experience," as opposed to Amazon's walled-garden experience. But I have a feeling I won't need to go that route, because the Fire offers what I want out of a tablet anyways, all in a tightly integrated package with services I've used for years.
Sure, there's niche markets out there for rugged tablets, "business" tablets (a market Windows dominates anyway), or keyboard tablets - stuff like that. But Amazon has gone for the regular, Internet Age Joe by offering not just the features we want, but a price we can easily stomach. And it's for those reasons that the Kindle Fire is the most serious Android competitor to the iPad we've seen to date, and by a country mile at that. I, for one, am absolutely thrilled about it. Not just for the Fire itself, but for the competition in the market that it's going to create.
Some say the Fire isn't a real tablet. That it lacks the features of one, that it's somehow "gimped." That's true to an extent. The thing is, I don't know that I want more in a tablet than the Fire offers. Android tablets right now have things I don't want, need, or otherwise care about. I don't look at the average Honeycomb tablet, compared to this, and think "I'm losing things that I will really miss." I think this is how tablets should be - at least for something marketed to the masses.
Anyway, cheers, Amazon - let's hope the Fire works as well you have me thinking it will.