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Amazon To Spark Fire In Heart Of Tablet Market

29 September 2011COMMENTS

Yesterday Amazon announced some major changes to their lineup of Kindle devices. The Kindle range of black and white E Ink e-book readers have proved popular with consumers since the launch of the original in 2007. Kindles are lightweight, have a very long battery life, a screen you can read in direct sunlight, and provide easy access to a huge range of books, magazines and newspapers directly from the device. Earlier this year the company announced it is now selling more e-books than traditional ink on dead-tree volumes.

Alongside a set of additions to its existing e-ink kindle range, Amazon also announced something a bit more exciting - the Kindle Fire.

Yep, it comes with magazines.

Though it retains the Kindle branding, the Kindle Fire is quite a different beast. It has a 7-inch colour screen, a dual-core processor and actually runs a modified version of Google's Android operating system. You might not know it to look at it though - Amazon has created an entirely new UI for the Fire, and its Android roots are barely even mentioned in passing in Amazon's own product information.

Another week, another iPad killer

Much hyped iPad alternatives have come and gone without making much of a dent in Apple's tablet marketshare. Alongside various Android tablets, the last year has seen the underwhelming debut of Blackberry's Playbook, and the launch and subsequent cancellation of HP's TouchPad. However, Amazon is in quite a unique position to take on Apple.

While Amazon has traditionally made its money from selling books, DVDs and other physical products that need to be shipped to customers, it has been moving towards digital distribution over the last few years. Its MP3 music store was the first to sell DRM-free music from the major labels, and its Kindle book store currently offers the largest selection of E-books. More recently, it launched its own app store for Android devices, in direct competition with Google's own Android Market. The Kindle Fire is integrated with all these services, and adds full-colour magazines, as well films to buy and rent. In other words, like Apple, Amazon can offer a huge range of content for its devices - books, audiobooks, music, films, newspapers, magazines, and apps.

Unlike Apple, Amazon wants to make its money from selling content, rather than selling hardware. One of the most interesting things about the Fire is its price - at $199 US, it costs less than half the price of an iPad 2, albeit for a device with a smaller screen. Apple's high margins on its hardware products are well documented, and though competing manufacturers generally offer lower prices, the Fire looks to be the cheapest around.

As a smaller device, the Fire looks to be more conveniently portable than an iPad, and there's a big base of users of older Kindle devices to build on, many of whom may not have considered a full-featured tablet before (i.e. people who read books rather than play games). Customers who already have Amazon Prime accounts even get free access to unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows.

To the cloud!

Amazon has been doing cloud services since before they were called cloud services. Starting with S3, its online storage service for developers, it has expanded its cloud offering (Amazon Web Services, or AWS) over the last few years to include cloud computation, hosting, databases, and CDN services, to name a few.

Each Kindle Fire is tied to your Amazon account, and your data is automatically backed up to Amazon's cloud storage transparently. Not a million miles away from what Google have been doing with Android, and Apple have been moving towards with iCloud -- but welcome.

Much more interesting is the Kindle Fire web browser, called Silk. Silk is built on the WebKit browser engine used by Safari, Chrome, and pretty much every modern mobile device around. But Silk has an interesting trick up its sleeve - a unique 'split-architecture' in which part of the browser runs on the device, and part in Amazon's AWS cloud infrastructure. For more, Amazon have a helpful video explaining it all:

There are echoes of Opera's Mini web browser - a lightweight browser that runs on almost any phone and relies on a proxy to translate desktop web content into something more suitable for mobile devices. However, Opera Mini primarily targets less powerful devices, and the Kindle's dual-core processor means it's probably a pretty nippy device to begin with.

It's true that many mobile devices can't keep up with bleeding edge web features, so perhaps there's some potential for improved performance and reduced battery usage by moving some of the work into the cloud. However, the most important benefit to this approach for a device like the kindle is likely to be in speeding up download times. Amazon are looking to do things like sending lower resolution images to the Fire when appropriate, and predicting where people are likely to go next so pages are downloaded before you even realise you want to read them. They're also using SPDY, Google's modern replacement for HTTP, currently in use in Google's Chrome browser for servers that support it (mostly just Google's own servers at present). SPDY has the potential to significantly improve load times for resource intensive web pages, but on higher latency connections (such as 3G networks) the speed up may well be more significant. Kindle Fire comes in a single WiFi-only flavour at present, but they'll doubtless look to roll out 3G-capable devices soon.

Is the tablet market (finally) warming up?

Android tablets haven't exactly set the world on fire so far (ok, enough fire-based puns already), but with Amazon's power in the content distribution space, years of cloud computing expertise, and a big existing customer base for older Kindle devices, the Kindle Fire might just be the one to dethrone the iPad.

The Kindle Fire is currently only available to pre-order for customers based in the United States.

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