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Amazon’s Kindle Fire Lights Tablet Competition

Amazon doesn’t go in by halves. The company’s announcement of a tablet device designed to compete with — but not “kill” — Apple’s iPad also included details on two other new Kindles available in three models. The big reveal, of course, was of the Kindle Fire, a 7-inch, full-color, touchscreen model with Wi-Fi retailing for $199 and shipping 15 November 2011. The Kindle Touch, a grayscale touchscreen model, ships a week later, while a new entry-level Kindle is available now.

As expected, the Kindle Fire isn’t a direct competitor to the iPad. It’s more of an alternative, or perhaps even a complement. Its smaller screen and Amazon’s emphasis of reading, watching, listening, and gaming features make it clear how much this slate is designed to compete as a device to consume media. It also lacks a camera, microphone, and Bluetooth networking. How creative one can be with a Fire will emerge when people get their hands on it.

Oh, and it runs Flash.

Lighting Up — The Kindle Fire is a 7-inch full-color tablet with a capacitative touchscreen like other tablets, and an IPS (in-plane switching) LCD for wide angles of viewing. It weighs under 15 ounces (a bit over 400g), and uses Amazon’s cloud services for downloading and streaming media. It includes only Wi-Fi in this first version, which also has a fixed 8 GB of storage, and the retail price (the only price, since it’s sold exclusively by Amazon) is $199. Amazon says the Fire allows 8 hours of continuous reading or 7.5 hours of video playback — with Wi-Fi turned off. The first version is available for only U.S. customers.

The Kindle Fire is also notable for what it lacks. There is no camera. It has a headphone jack and built-in speakers, but no microphone. And there’s no Bluetooth for use with external audio devices or keyboards. It does sport a micro-USB port, but it won’t be clear until the device is released if that can be used for purposes other than connecting to a computer (to mount as a drive) or for charging.

While the Kindle Fire runs Google’s Android operating system, a fact confirmed by Amazon, you will not see a bit of Google or Android branding on the device or in its interface. While I suspected Amazon would opt for a full operating system fork, in which it took a specific version of Android and then went down its own path, it appears that the changes are all at the top level where users interact with the device. (You can read my take on what I thought Amazon would do in a piece for The Economist, “Forking Android.”)

This approach with Android keeps Amazon at arm’s length from Google, while still allowing it to work with all existing Android developers. Assuming the Kindle Fire sells well, which is a reasonable expectation, developers will have a reason to make sure that all their apps work perfectly on the Fire, perhaps to the detriment of other Android models.

Because Amazon isn’t buying into Android-as-an-ecosystem, the Kindle Fire will not feature the Android Marketplace as an app, since Amazon has its own Android app store. But many Android models allow “sideloading,” in which an app is purchased in one place, and then loaded through a few steps onto the device on which it is to run. Amazon could facilitate this to make sure to tap into the larger market and emphasize the one aspect of Android’s openness that’s legitimately open in comparison to Apple’s closed app installation process. However, a New York Times article says
that Amazon will allow only “Android apps approved by Amazon and distributed through its Amazon Android Store.” Some Android phone makers and carriers also prevent sideloading.

Apple claimed in the past that a 7-inch screen didn’t meet its smell test for being useful, but that might be merely a convenient excuse from a firm that has a ready supply of 10-inch touchscreens, and that wanted to develop a programming framework around just a few sizes of device: the original iPhone/iPod touch dimensions, the iPad size and resolution, and the four-times-denser Retina Display upgrade to the iPhone and iPod touch.

Amazon, by contrast, is coming out of several years of selling mostly 6-inch screen devices, and it has seemingly good feedback about what you can do in that amount of space. Amazon has also been able to watch the missteps of early Android and other tablet competitors, and avoid many of those problems.

Notably, at least from the images released, the Kindle Fire doesn’t have a Springboard-style home screen interface like that in iOS; a similar interface is also found in most other mobile platforms, including Android. Instead of presenting the user with a grid of app icons, Amazon focuses the Fire on media and tasks. The home page has a Cover Flow-style presentation of everything that’s available on the device. A menu bar at the top lets you choose among media types, viewing documents, listing apps, and browsing the Web.

With the Kindle Fire, Amazon has eschewed physical connections in favor of its cloud services. There’s no computer component for the Fire, as noted amusingly in the technical specs part of the product page: “System Requirements: None, because it’s wireless and doesn’t require a computer.” All media is downloaded over Wi-Fi from Amazon’s cloud. You can delete and restore items at will, and either download or stream programming. (Amazon typically prevents books from being resident on more than six Kindle devices at once.)

The 8 GB of included storage and lack of a memory expansion slot, along with the Wi-Fi–only wireless connectivity, means you need to plan what items to keep on your Kindle Fire for those times when you’re not connected to a Wi-Fi network. Amazon claims the Fire can hold 10 movies, 80 apps, 800 songs, or 6,000 books. A two-hour movie would need to fit into about 700 MB for that to work, which assumes optimized compression for the 7-inch screen and its resolution.

The Kindle Fire comes with a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime, which was introduced years ago as a way to get free 2-day shipping on any item stocked in an Amazon warehouse. It’s normally $79 per year. But Amazon Prime now includes free streaming of over 11,000 movies and TV shows from Amazon’s much larger catalog of video. I imagine many Fire buyers will already be Amazon Prime customers, and many of those who aren’t will find the video and shipping compelling. (My wife and I use Amazon Prime a ridiculous amount, because when you eliminate shipping charges, even items such as toothpaste are cheaper from Amazon than the local drugstore or Costco. We pay sales tax, as Amazon is headquartered in our home state of Washington.)

I expect that Amazon decided to hold off on a 3G model of the Kindle Fire before the holidays to get the Fire to market faster, and to avoid the complexity of 3G service plan deals with carriers. While all the Kindle devices that include 3G incorporate data charges into purchases, the Fire is a multi-purpose tablet that will use 3G connectivity for much more than purchases, and cloud-based synchronization plus Web browsing mean that a 3G model of the Fire will have to work within carriers’ service plans.

Smooth as Silk — Amazon also claims time (and thus bandwidth) savings in browsing. Instead of having the built-in browser directly connect to Web sites, Amazon is introducing Silk with the Kindle Fire, a sort of Web proxy with optimization that has a resemblance in part to Opera Software’s Opera Turbo. Where Turbo focuses on compressing images and reducing
unnecessary data flow to a browser, Silk does quite a bit more.

In the simplest explanation, Silk uses Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), its high-performance virtual machine system, to retrieve requested Web pages and repackage them for more efficient delivery to the Kindle Fire. An EC2 proxy will shoot the entire page as an optimized single stream to the Fire browser, and it will apparently keep that connection open between the browser and EC2 all the time. Silk will also apparently predictively load pages based on the behavior of other Fire users as to what page you might click on next.

By contrast, a normal Web browser opens a connection to the remote Web server when a page is requested, and has to pull down most or all of an HTML page before it can start grabbing JavaScript files, images, and other embedded content. The connection may persist for just a single request, or sometimes for multiple files. Amazon has said, in response to privacy concerns about the firm having its fingers on all the browsing performed by its customers, that the Silk browser can be configured to work just like a normal browser and bypass EC2 entirely.

Amazon’s Silk job listings — thanks, Shawn Medero! — show that Silk programmers use Google’s SPDY, an open-source method of making Web connections vastly more efficient, and WebKit, the underlying browser rendering engine used in Safari and Android’s browser, to which Apple has contributed enormous resources. (Silk might be a joke on the Web and on Google’s SPDY, which sounds like “Spidey” when pronounced aloud. Take that, webslingers!)

The Other Kindles — Let’s not ignore what have suddenly become the Kindle Fire’s little siblings. Amazon also introduced two new Kindle readers while retaining the two existing models. Both new models omit keyboards, making them smaller and lighter. They’re also both cheaper. All the Kindles except the DX and the Fire use a 6-inch E-Ink grayscale screen.

The basic Kindle now costs $79, and has only Wi-Fi. With no keyboard and no touchscreen, a few buttons on the front enable you to navigate. It weighs a smidgen under 6 ounces (170g), and is about 80 percent of the size of the previous smallest Kindle. It has 2 GB of storage, compared with 4 GB for all other Kindle e-reader models.

The new Kindle Touch uses an infrared touch-sensitive screen, and retails at $99 in a Wi-Fi-only model . It’s nearly as small, and weighs under 8 ounces (under 225g). The Wi-Fi+3G Kindle Touch model works in 100 countries and costs $149. The Touch addresses one of the most irritating parts of touch-based reading, which is hitting the next page area. With a touchscreen, it was simple matter to fix: Amazon has made most of the book’s page into a next-page tap, so books can be easily read right- or left-handed.

The Kindle Touch has one exclusive feature. Called X-Ray, it incorporates a kind of skeleton of the book as easily available graphical metadata. Using Wikipedia and Shelfari (owned by Amazon), you can tap to see where ideas, characters, places, and other sorts of information are referenced throughout the book. It’s an intriguing idea, especially for long Russian novels, in which characters recur after absences of hundreds of pages. And I am the only one who can’t recall which Bennett sister is which in “Pride and Prejudice”?

The former base-level Kindle has been rebranded as Kindle Keyboard, and comes in Wi-Fi-only ($99) and Wi-Fi+3G versions ($139). The Kindle DX remains on sale, too, with its 9.7-inch E-Ink screen and built-in 3G (no Wi-Fi).

Now a proviso on the pricing. Amazon is promoting these Kindle models at the prices mentioned, but there’s a catch: all prices include savings based on the Special Offers editions in which advertising and sponsored messages are shown. That may sound irritating, but ads don’t interrupt you while reading; they appear only when a Kindle is in sleep mode, a state in which the E-Ink display shows a static (and non-battery-draining) image.

Amazon’s Special Offers reduce the price of a Kindle by a significant amount: $30 (Kindle), $40 (Kindle Touch, Kindle Keyboard with Wi-Fi), and $50 (Kindle Keyboard with 3G). Former TidBITS contributor and current Macworld editor Lex Friedman said on Twitter the ads aren’t bad. “The ads are really, really minimal though — and generally even worth it. They never interrupt the reading process.”

Nevertheless, a $79 Kindle brings the price down to that of a stocking stuffer in some families, or a nice gift for a student or dear friend. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos openly said they would sell millions of them, something a publicly held company CEO would hold his mouth over unless he was confident of such a prediction. Having sold millions at much higher prices, I think he’s right.

We’re Number Two — The Kindle Fire occupies a new and different niche in the mobile device environment. It can’t kill the iPad because of its form factor and lack of inputs for audio and video. But it’s likely to become the second-best-selling tablet device quickly, and it will certainly attract those for whom the cost and size of the iPad are deterrents to purchase. I can also see people owning a smartphone, a Kindle Fire, and an iPad, all intended for slightly different purposes, trips, and occasions. The lack of media recording and low price might make the Fire more appropriate than iPod touch for parents concerned about children sharing inappropriate audio and

The reason I’m so confident about Amazon, where I have been so scornful of the Samsung Galaxy S, Motorola Xoom (4G coming only several months later than promised), HP TouchPad (dead), and RIM BlackBerry PlayBook (dying), is because none of these devices that were ostensibly great for viewing video had a media ecosystem behind them. How do you buy or load the movies and TV shows you want to watch? The answer was always a silence interrupted by crickets, a nervous mention of Netflix, and future partnerships. But Amazon? Amazon has apps, music, books, TV shows, and movies already in place.

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