Amazon's Fire tablet: making Cupertino sweat - TechCentral

Amazon’s Fire tablet: making Cupertino sweat

[By Craig Wilson]

On Wednesday, US online retail giant Amazon will launch its first tablet computer, the Google Android-powered device that technology site TechCrunch reckons will be called the Kindle Fire. With dozens of tablets in the market already, the obvious question is: why should we care? The reason pundits and punters alike are so excited can be summed up in one word: content.

The Fire is likely to be a seven-inch device, stripped of things like cameras to keep costs down to possibly as low as US$250, or about half the price of the entry-level Apple iPad. Indeed, the Fire could prove to be the most significant challenger to the Apple iPad to date because of its price and the network of content Amazon will bring to bear.

Amazon offers television shows, movies, music and books and that’s what makes its forthcoming tablet so exciting, and what makes most Android tablets so unsuccessful. The Android ecosystem is fragmented, while Apple’s is all-encompassing and tied closely into its content and application stores.

The Fire is expected to run Amazon’s own take on Android, and include a custom app store. This could work in the company’s favour as one of the most frequent criticisms of the Android Market is how bloated it is with worthless apps and how much detritus there is to sift through compared to Apple’s more tightly controlled App Store.

Though there are many who decry Apple’s interventionist approach to applications and laud the “openness” of Android, there’s no denying Apple provides a far cleaner, simpler experience that requires less separating of wheat from chaff. If Amazon can replicate this with its own content and carefully chosen apps it could entice swathes of new customers.

With the rumoured $250 price tag, the Fire will also be much cheaper than any of the other major tablets in the market. It’s expected to go on sale in the second week in November in the US, just in time for the Christmas shopping rush. We don’t know when it’s coming to SA, but hopefully Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos will shed some light on international launch plans on Wednesday.

As Amazon has shown with its more basic Kindle e-book reader, it’s not the device that makes the money but the services it sells around it. That’s why the company can sell the Kindle so cheaply: just $139 for the entry-level version.

Nintendo is applying the same model to its 3DS handheld game console, though the Japanese company arguably should have sold it at a loss from the outset, not after it realised consumers were less interested than it had hoped.

The Kindle’s success is due only in part to the device itself. Sure, e-ink is great for bibliophiles, but for technophiles the Kindle is a very rudimentary and limited device. What keeps Kindle sales ticking over is the accompanying Kindle store and the thousands of books on offer that can be bought instantly.

Amazon not only sells books, but also runs its own digital music store. Add to that the announcement last weekend of its deal with Fox to bring popular television and movie content to Amazon Prime subscribers — Prime is its preferential delivery and loyalty subscription programme — and suddenly the Fire looks like a hot proposition.

Amazon Prime costs US subscribers $80/year, and apart from granting them unlimited streaming from Amazon’s now substantially bolstered movie and television series catalogues, it offers free two-day shipping and reduced costs on overnight shipping for other purchases from the Amazon store. For many, it’s a compelling proposition on its own.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon bundles Prime subscriptions with the Fire because, as the illicit drug trade has demonstrated, giving consumers the first taste free is a great way to keep them coming back for more.

Amazon has had the content for the longest time. What it’s lacked is a tool to make accessing that content as easy as it is from Apple. Consumers will pay for convenience and variety and Amazon has variety in spades.

The Fire looks set to turn up the heat in Cupertino, the site of Apple’s headquarters in California.

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