Great Expectations for Amazon’s Fire

Tech Crunch reports that Amazon will announce its new Kindle “Fire” tablet at the press conference it is holding tomorrow.

Everything we’ve previously reported on the hardware remains the same. It will be a 7-inch backlit display tablet that looks similar to the BlackBerry PlayBook. Gdgt’s Ryan Block was able to dig up a bit more about the connection. Apparently, the Kindle Fire looks like a PlayBook because it was designed and built by the same original design manufacturer (ODM), Quanta. Even though Amazon has their own team dedicated to Kindle design and development, Lab 126, they wanted to get the Fire out there in time for this holiday season so they outsourced most of it as a shortcut.

I get the feeling there’s more going on here.

Because at that gdgt link, Ryan Block notes:

Amazon’s own Kindle group (called Lab 126) apparently opted not to take on the project, in favor of continuing to work solely on next-gen E-Ink-based devices.

Me, I’m wondering if this new “Fire” isn’t a separate product. If I were Amazon, I think that’s what I might do; develop a media tablet separate from my e-reader, because the e-reader and tablet markets overlap but are, ultimately, disparate.

Then again, if I were Amazon, there are a lot of things I’d be doing.

Amazon’s Kindle is, simply, the best e-ink digital reading device on the market right now. The iPad is a magical tablet, but reading LCD screens is a very different experience from reading e-ink screens. Barnes & Noble’s nook color might well be the best Android tablet on the market, but because of its LCD display, it’s really not optimal for the function for which Barnes & Noble marketed it in the first place (reading). I think they ultimately realized that, too, which is why they brought the nook Simple Touch to market; the device has pretty much exactly the same screen, with the same contrast ratios and refreshment rates, as the Kindle.

It’s not as good as Kindle, though. It’s a touchscreen device that uses some kind of laser or something; to be honest, I’m not sure exactly how it works, but suffice it to say it’s not capacitive. In addition, when I played with a display model at B&N, its page-turning buttons felt like mush. I can’t say that’s universal (I only played with one display unit, after all), but I had to say meh.

The Kindle is not perfect, though it is the closest to perfect Amazon has come. Its display and page-turning pages are terrific. The keyboard buttons are another story; not a terrific size, not easy to press or hunt . . . there’s no real optimum way to use them for input.

What’s funny about the idea that Amazon went to the same people who developed Blackberry’s Playbook for their new tablet is that my first thought, on getting a Kindle, was that if I were Amazon, among the first purchases I’d make would be Research in Motion. Blackberrys have the best keyboards in the world, and they became famous for their use among business professionals.

I think the ideal Kindle would retain the e-ink display while making it a little larger and improving the keyboard, at least in terms of hardware.

The software is where I’d focus. It’s interesting Facebook announced a new “read” button this past week; I wonder if that might be integrated. For my money, before I discovered that Amazon had bought Shelfari, I thought that their second purchase should have been of Goodreads. I love Goodreads. It’s a terrific site, but I feel like it’s a little too niche and lacks a cross-site integration feature that would propagate more mainstream usage.

Also, I’d fix the damn Kindle Store experience, which totally sucks on the Kindle itself. Whenever I decide it’s time to shop for books, I bust out my laptop, browse sites and blogs and Amazon, and then I purchase them on Amazon and have them wirelessly delivered to my Kindle, solely because the experience of book shopping on a Kindle is frustratingly inadequate. The browsing sucks. There’s no simple way to either search or sort.

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I’m wondering, though, if tomorrow’s Amazon announcement will reveal that we’re not looking at an “Amazon Kindle Fire” but rather an Amazon Kindle and an Amazon Fire, with the Fire less focused on reading and more focused on media. The Fire could well be Amazon’s media tablet, deeply integrated with three key (and new) Amazon services: Amazon Cloud Music, Amazon Video-on-Demand, and Amazon’s Android App Store.

Honestly, I think that’s what we’re going to see tomorrow: a new Amazon tablet that will run a custom Amazon skin over Google’s Android platform. Most reports indicate it’s going to be $299 or thereabouts; I’m wondering if it’s not going to be priced lower, and perhaps substantially so. If I were Amazon, for example, I might make my brand new media tablet available for, say, $199, with a razor-thin profit margin, because I’d hope I’d make way more cash selling the services, like video on demand and music streaming and gaming apps.

It’s a model known to work. Just ask Gillette.

I think I’d also drop the Kindle below $100 (even if solely “With Special Offers”). A sub-$100 Kindle would kill.


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