On The Kindle Fire

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Kindle FIre since it was announced, and I’ve ended up writing a lot about it too, in the form of comments sprinkled here and there on sites like Hacker News.  I thought I’d take a little time to try and get them all down in one place.  So, here it goes.

Approach

This isn’t a review, it is a rumination on what the Kindle Fire “means” in the context of the larger technology and media landscape. My goal isn’t to reach conclusions, but rather to document and share my current thinking.

I’ll start by going over some basic details about the Kindle Fire, and my first impressions from using the device, before considering the device’s relationship to other aspects of the technology and media landscape.

Basic Facts

  • 7″ “widescreen” IPS LCD Screen (600×1024, 161ppi)
  • 1GHz Dual Core CPU
  • 8 GB Flash
  • 512 MB RAM
  • Heavily modified version of Android 2.3
  • $199
  • 8 hour battery life (with WiFi off)
  • No camera, no ports beyond USB
  • Sold by Amazon at or below cost
  • Part of Amazon’s longstanding line of ebook readers
  • Positioned as a more flexible/capable Kindle, with an emphasis on consumption of the web, purchased media (including Apps) and a shopping experience.
  • Positioning was well received by consumers and critics.
  • Actual device has been panned by many critics, but customer satisfaction seems to be high.
On paper, it is a reasonably capable device, the hardware is, in many ways, gives it simlar capability to the iPad 2, though the iPad 2 has a much better GPU with a screen that is physically larger and displays more pixels.

First-hand Impressions

I haven’t spent much time with a KindleFire, but a few things are clear from my limited use:
  • The screen is crisp and bright
  • The power button is awkwardly positioned
  • The placement of the stereo speakers don’t make any sense (they are both on the same side when watching a video wide screen)
  • The UI is smooth, except when it isn’t

vs eInk Kindle

Amazon notes the Kindle Fire’s abilities as an ebook reader, but doesn’t go so far as to suggest that it is an outright replacement for an eInk Kindle.  The eInk screens are better for reading books, particularly in full sunlight, and enable both lighter weight and longer battery life.  The eInk devices are also cheaper, and available with 3G to allow downloading of new content wherever there is cellular coverage.

I suspect that for many existing Kindle owners, the Fire won’t be a replacement device.

Amazon vs Apple

Before digging into the devices, its worth comparing Apple and Amazon as a whole.

Apple started out making relatively expensive stuff that other people sold for them at a relatively high margin. Over time, Apple has taken responsibility for selling more and more of the stuff they make. They have also become an important retail channel for people who make less tangible products, like music, movies, apps and, to a lesser extent, ebooks, and they have started offering services to end-users.

Amazon started out by retailing books that other people published and quickly added all sorts of stuff that other people (including Apple) made.  In recent years they’ve become an important seller of services that other people use to provide end-user services, they’ve become increasingly important retail channel for people who make less tangible products, like music, movies, apps and ebooks. Most recently, they’ve started making and selling stuff that with the consumption (and sale) of those less tangible products.  In all of this, Amazon has been comfortable with relatively slim margins.

Both companies have been willing to buck the trend of focusing on next quarters earnings.   In Apple’s case, one result has been healthy margins, healthy profits, and strong market share.  In Amazon’s case, one result has been strong market share and modest profits.

Kindle Fire vs iPad

Amazon didn’t explicitly position the Kindle Fire as an iPad competitor, but plenty of people have made the comparison for them.  I don’t see them as direct competitors, but I am curious about how the Kindle Fire will impact the iPad in the future, and vice versa.

There are obvious differences between the Kindle Fire and the iPad.  The Fire doesn’t have a camera, the iPad has two.  The Fire has a smaller display.  The Kindle is less than half the cost of the cheapest iPad 2.  The iPad is available with more storage, and with a cellular data connection.  What are the implications of these differences?

The cost difference is obvious, a family could buy two Kindle Fires for the cost of one iPad, and have $100 to spend on content. The size of the Kindle gives it an obvious advantage in portability. On the other hand, the iPad’s size makes typing on the touch-screen practical. It’s large enough to view PDFs formatted for letter-size paper, and for browsing and using layouts for digital “magazines.” It also makes it practical to create, populate and format a spreadsheet, or a document, or a presentation.  For many people with modest computing needs, it is a viable alternative to a desktop or notebook.

In the end, I think the Kindle Fire is probably a viable competitor to the iPad for listening to music, watching videos, reading ebooks, and playing certain classes of games (provided they are available).  I think it is inferior to the iPad for web browsing, writing email, creating and editing documents.  I think the iPad has an added advantage in these areas because with iCloud, plus Pages, Keynote and Numbers, Apple provides apps and services that help people who are using the iPad as both a replacement for a standard notebook, or to augment one.

It’s worth noting too, the way that content and hardware businesses fit together for Apple and Amazon.  For Amazon, hardware is something they sell close to cost in order to enable the sales of low-margin content. For Apple, they sell content at or close to cost in order to enable the sames of high-margin hardware.  In the past, Apple’s control of music sales drove music labels into Amazon’s embrace as they looked for ways of reducing Apple’s influence.  I wonder if Apple might be the beneficiary of similar concerns on the part of media companies, since Amazon seems interested in disinter-mediating them.

The differing business models also suggest different near-term futures for the different devices.  Advances in technology will shift the price and performance envelopes for both the iPad and the Kindle Fire.

My prediction is that Apple will put most of those advances into enhancing the capabilities of the iPad in order to drive upgrades and make the iPad a viable alternative to a full-blown laptop.  I would expect an “retina” display, as well as the more capable CPU and GPU required to drive it.  They may trim weight, but I’m not convinced that battery life or weight will see rapid improvement

Amazon, on the other hand, has much less incentive to improve device capabilities.  Video and ebook reading doesn’t require faster CPU or GPU.  Web browsing might benefit from upgrades, but they seem to think their cloud-services will help with some part of browsing performance.  If games become really important on the platform, then CPU and GPU advances might have a place.  Battery life and weight have room for improvement as well. Given Amazon’s business model though, the most obvious course of action is to lower costs, which will largely be put to reducing the sales price in order to increace market penetration and leverage over content producers.  In short, Amazon has more to gain from selling more devices than they do from selling more capable devices.

vs iPod Touch

Much has been made of how the Kindle Fire compares to the iPad as a media consumption device, which is fine, but ignores the fact that an iPad is capable of being more than a consumption device.

I agree though, the Kindle does seem strongest as a media consumption device, and from that perspective, I think it is worth comparing it to the iPod Touch, which is available at about the same price point.

For that price, the Fire gives you a larger screen for watching videos, playing games, browsing the web, and shopping.  It is also reasonably portable, particularly if you carry a purse.  It is, however, far less portable than an iPod touch, which fits in just about anyones pocket, and ads the capability of taking photos and videos.

It’s also worth noting that, while the iPod is in decline, Apple still sells millions of iPod Touch devices every quarter, so at least some of the people in the market for a Kindle Fire

vs Smartphones

I’m running out of steam here, but I think a lot of the points made above, about the iPod Touch, apply here as well.  Many people already have, or will soon be buying, capable, portable media consumption devices in the form of smartphones.  However, there is evidence so far is that Android users lag iPhone users in purchasing content and apps on their devices.  This consumption gap might create an opportunity for the Kindle Fire among android phone owners, but the larger opportunity might be some sort of Kindle Phone, whereby Amazon could drive an app and media purchase and consumption experience that rivals Apple’s.

vs Notebooks

I don’t think the Kindle Fire is a viable notebook alternative, while I think the iPad is.  Further, I think over the next few years, the iPad is likely to become a more viable notebook alternative, as its capabilities advance. On the other hand, I don’t think the Kindle Fire will become a more viable notebook alternative, because Amazon will put more focus on lowering costs than they will on enhancing capabilities, particularly since their non-hardware business are likely to see more benefit from selling twice as many devices than they are from selling devices that are twice as capable.

In Conclusion

I’m tired, but at least now I have something to expand on and/or refer to in future posts.  Possible topics:

  • A closer look at Amazon and Apple’s content distribution businesses
  • A closer look at Amazon and Apple’s entire user experience offerings.  For example, Apple’s web services, desktop apps, retail experience, consumer support.

 

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