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Amazon Kindle Fire explodes onto tablet scene

Jeff Bezos' exciting announcement yesterday new Kindle Fire has some calling Amazon.com founder new Steve Jobs. | AP

Jeff Bezos' exciting announcement yesterday of the new Kindle Fire has some calling the Amazon.com founder the new Steve Jobs. | AP

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Updated: September 28, 2011 5:24PM



The rumors were mostly spot-on.

Amazon announced and demonstrated a color version of the Kindle called the Kindle Fire Wednesday morning in New York. It’s a 7-inch multitouch tablet that runs the Android OS and it’ll sell for $199. You can pre-order it from Amazon today but it won’t ship until November.

But rumor sites, which were vibrating themselves into nigh-invisibility in the 48 hours before Amazon’s press event, got two things very wrong.

First, there was more to it than just the Fire. The new color tablet is just the sharpest, shiniest end of a whole new line of Kindle devices. The existing e-ink Kindle has been completely redesigned. It’s smaller, lighter and faster, and now the WiFi-only version sells for a super-cheap $79, down from $119.

If you’ve got an extra twenty bucks to blow, you can step up to the new Kindle Touch. The display uses the same e-ink technology as the previous Kindle, but the screen is ringed with a grid of infrared sensors that lets you navigate through books and menus through touch.

The Touch includes a nifty-looking new feature for exploration. “X-Ray” is a view of the book that allows for slightly deeper analysis. Search your copy of “Code Of The Woosters” for “Madeline Bassett” and the Kindle’s X-Ray view will put up a timeline of the story, marking the patches of the story in which the character appears. X-Ray also lets you access supplemental info that Amazon side-loads onto books when you download them to the device. No longer will a mention of a location or a character or a historical event that you barely recognize send you diving towards Google. If Amazon imagines you might need a refresher course on the Boer Wars, there’ll be a couple of paragraphs lurking in the data somewhere, to help you out even if you’re not near an Internet connection with content harvested from Amazon subsidiary Shelfari.com.

The most laughable prediction that had swept the Internets was that the device Amazon showed off during the press event would be little more than a “stopgap” product . . . a half-arsed slapdash that the company was rushing out to take advantage of holiday sales. The real Amazon tablet device would be released next year, these people promised.

No.

Oh, my, no.

No, no, no.

And: bollocks. The Fire is the real deal and it’s going to disrupt the equilibrium of the existing market for media devices.

If you’d like to simply think of it as Amazon’s clone of Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color, you’re welcome to do so. It does of course feature a Kindle app and it implements Amazon’s WhisperNet service. Whatever you buy and whatever you read is instantly available on the Fire, synced to wherever you were on whatever device you last used to read this content. Like the Nook, the Fire has built-in WiFi and a web browser and it runs third-party apps. So, it can stretch its legs a little bit and pull more weight than a mere ebook device can.

The Fire will retail for $199. The Nook Color is $249.

Clearly, Barnes and Noble has a new issue to deal with this week.

But the Fire is so much more than merely a response to a competitor’s popular and affordable color ebook reader. In scene after scene during the media event, as CEO Jeff Bezos walked through an hourlong presentation and through conversation after conversation with executives (armed with Fires that they would not relinquish to the likes of me, even for a second), it’s clear that the Fire is meant to be an articulation of the entire range and power of Amazon’s services.

Like I pointed out yesterday, the throne for the King of Digital Media is hotly contested, but Amazon currently has a slight edge over Apple and the Fire can play anything Amazon can sell you. Your books, obviously. But there’s also Amazon MP3, and Amazon’s streaming video store and the more than 10,000 titles you can stream for free as a subscriber to Amazon’s $79-a-year Prime service.

All of it lands on the Fire through a simple one-screen interface where all of the items you’ve touched recently are instantly accessible via a carousel, in last-in, first-up order. All possible media is combined in the carousel: you’ll see the album you played this morning, the book you read on the train to the airport, and the movie you watched on the plane all in one spot. Tabs along the top of the window allow you to browse your content: Newsstand (for periodicals), Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, and the Web.

Even websites and apps you’ve used recently appear inside the carousel. Your enduring favorites can be “pinned” to a shelf at the bottom of the screen.

Cloud before cloud was cool

There’s a consistent theme to this device. Amazon is eager to point out that they were a cloud services company before anyone thought to create a meaningless buzzword for what Amazon does. The company’s concept for digital services has always been a zero-cable, zero-sync world, in which it’s Amazon and WhisperSync’s job to find the stuff you want and get it onto the device when you want it. What’s more natural than a device that taps into all of those digital products?

And along the way, Amazon has acquired some massive data capabilities. Not only can their servers store and serve ungodly amounts of data to untold numbers of simultaneous users, but they also have immense processing resources.

Which inspired the company to create a whole new browser architecture powered by Amazon Web Services. Like pretty much every web browser on every mobile device, the Silk browser on the Fire is built on top of WebKit (which is the standard for website compatibility). But the similarities end there. Silk streamlines and speeds up web browsing by offloading as much CPU load to Amazon’s computing megacomplex as possible. Even the basic task of translating a simple URL to the location of a webserver requires multiple transactions, each with its own sets of delays. When browsing via the Fire, the browser makes one request to Amazon’s Silk backend and it pushes only the results back down.

Along the way, Silk also reformats pages to display well on a mobile screen, if that’s appropriate, and will rescale images and other content in a fashion that speeds up the download without throwing away any resolution or data that users of this kind of device couldn’t possibly appreciate.

This basic approach -- a mobile web browser that shifts as much processing and rendering as it can to a powerful data center -- is nothing new. But it’s never been done quite so ambitiously. During the presentation, a slide that flashed by far too quickly listed about a dozen different kinds of transactions and types of rendering that apply to a given webpage, and how the onboard and server Silk code coordinate their efforts to maximize speed. It’s an intimate tango that any infrastructure architecture engineer would describe -- with admiration -- as “almost pornographic.”

In addition to simple offloading, the server can crowdsource anonymized information about browsing habits, analyze them, and use those conclusions to try to stay a step ahead of you. If analysis demonstrates that most of today’s visitors to NYT.com have gone from the top page directly to the linked story about [name of embarrassment-to-the-party politician doing something stupid and/or impeachable], then the Fire’s browser will preload that page in the background while you’re reading the top stories. If you visit some other section, no harm done. But if your behavior is similar to that of thousands of other users that day, navigating to that second article will take no more time than what it takes to turn the page of a book because all of those elements are already downloaded, rendered and ready to go.

I was a bit surprised to learn that the Fire supports Adobe Flash content directly, instead of using Amazon’s server to recompile that content into straight plugin-free HTML5. But nope, I’m told that Amazon built an optimized version of the plugin and it all runs onboard. There’s no support for Microsoft Silverlight content, and the browser doesn’t offer any sort of open support for plugins, however.

I was also surprised that Amazon didn’t offer even the vaguest hint as to Silk’s real-world performance. In the main presentation and in conversations afterward, all such questions were deferred. But if Silk works well, it could be the sleeper hit of the Fire and a serious competitive advantage over other devices. Would Amazon consider creating Silk browsers for other platforms? Well, right now they’re focused on making it work great on the Fire.

A potpourri of technical details:

- The Fire is built around a dual-core Texas Instruments processor, identity undisclosed.

- The screen is a 7-inch IPS display with 16 million colors and a density of 169 pixels per inch (so it’s similar to an iPad’s). It’s faced with Gorilla Glass for durability.

- Weighs in at 14.6 ounces. That’s a bit more than an ounce lighter than the Nook Color.

- It has a built-in speaker but no microphone or camera. It has an ambient light sensor, an accelerometer and a tilt sensor. The multitouch display supports only two contact points.

- Though performance is mostly a matter of conjecture -- remember, under no circumstances was any non-Amazon employee allowed to even touch the things -- live demos gave the appearance of zippy speed and interactivity, at least.

- It features 8 gigabytes of local storage. Which seems a trifle slim, but maybe not; remember that this is fundamentally designed to be a cloud-based device in which all of your content is stored on Amazon’s servers and can be pulled down on demand whenever you need it without syncing.

- It has a dock connector and mounts on any desktop as a standard USB mass storage device, like all previous Kindles. So you can sideload content onto it just by dragging files in.

- Battery life is given as “7 to 8 hours,” with the low end of that referring to watching nonstop videos on a plane (so: heavy screen and CPU but no WiFi).

- Alas, Amazon has “nothing to announce” about the Fire’s accessibility features, beyond the Kindle’s existing text-to-speech reading feature.

- No Bluetooth and no support for USB accessories. They didn’t demo the Fire’s onscreen keyboard but you must conclude that this device has one.

Lovely. But what about apps and other content?

Well, obviously there’s that whole “Apps” tab right on the Fire’s start screen. And Amazon has more than 10,000 Android apps, in the Appstore that they opened back in March.

That said, it appears that Amazon is content to have the Fire launch in November as a content device. I spoke with Dave Limp, Amazon’s Kindle VP, who told me that only four companies -- Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and Pandora -- had access to the Fire before today’s announcement.

Limp was careful to point out that “as a user, you’d be hard-pressed to notice it’s Android.”

Still, it’s tied in to Amazon’s Android AppStore; Amazon will be “recertifying” existing apps for the Fire, which implies that users will one day be able to teleport straight to apps that have been designed specifically for the device.

If Amazon company can generate serious developer interest, it’ll be the first real shot in the arm that Android has had on tablets. Android apps that are truly engineered for tablets are like free parking spaces downtown. They’re damned rare, and when you think you’ve found one, chances are excellent that you’ll get burned in one way or another.

And all Amazon needs to do to generate that interest is demonstrate that the Fire -- unlike every other platform -- can actually generate revenue for an Android developer.

But the mere presence of third-party apps on this device is encouraging enough and suggests that any limitations the tablet has at launch are easily fixable by third parties.

Like support for other kinds of content. There’s really only one thing I don’t fundamentally like about the existing Kindles: they don’t support ePub, which is the standard ebook format for both commercial and free content on every other reader device and app on the planet.

Limp says that there’s nothing currently in place to prevent a third party from creating an ePub reader for the Fire. I couldn’t resist a cheeky question: if Barnes & Noble submitted a Nook reader app, would they approve it?

“We’d be willing to have that conversation,” he said. Whether he meant “The Fire is all about embracing content from any source” or “we would enjoy the challenge of trying to keep a straight face while Barnes & Noble seriously even suggested such a thing” is up for interpretation.

One thing’s for sure: the Fire will support content from a wildly diverse range of sources. The fact that they allowed Pandora and Netflix into the tent before everybody else should say enough about that.

But I was also pleased to encounter and chat with Jim Lee, Co-Publisher of DC Comics, and David Steinberger, CEO of Comixology. The fact that the Fire will soon support digital comic books alongside more conventional fare tells you all you need to know about the broad horizons of the device.

What about the competition?

I mentioned that Amazon clearly put the hurt on a number of competitors today. It’d be glib, and incorrect, to suggest that the Nook Color is done, but suffice to say that Barnes & Noble will need to come up with a new game plan and execute it flawlessly if they’re going to expand upon their existing market.

The other brands of dedicated ebook readers, however, are effectively finished. The $199 Fire doesn’t affect their business all that much. But if Amazon is appropriately quick to roll out these devices to international markets, the new $99 and $79 e-ink Kindles are two shots to which the competition has no real response.

So what about the iPad, then?

Limp was circumspect about such comments. “I’m not sure that it’s a head-to-head device,” he said. “Our customers will tell us what to do.”

Which is the conclusion I had already drawn. The iPad and the Fire are fundamentally different in their goals and approach. Apple touts the iPad as “the first computer of the post-PC world.” Amazon speaks of the Fire as “an end-to-end solution” in which the content that you buy and store within the Amazon ecosystem can be fully experienced and enjoyed.

For certain, there’s going to be some overlap. In addition to Fire’s browser and the presence of the app store, the Fire will ship with an email client and support for contacts. But no calendaring app. That’s probably an indication of where Amazon is aiming the device. A “serious productivity tablet” would have shipped with support for scheduling; as-is, Amazon has left that as an opportunity for third-party developers.

I can’t imagine someone waffling between an iPad and a Fire. Offhand, it seems as though Apple will lose those customers who couldn’t find any credible alternatives to the iPad and bought one even though they didn’t think of it as That Perfect Thing. The Fire will also pick up those consumers who didn’t have $499 worth of love for the iPad, or couldn’t fit such a big tablet into their lifestyles.

The only prediction I can make is that Amazon has just made it about three times more difficult for any other company to succeed in the tablet market. Companies with Android tablets to sell are going to feel the most of the pain. The Fire will probably make a quick job of annexing the territory that everyone else has been fighting over for the past year.

Think of the tablet market as having two segments in its current form. If someone has cash, they want an iPad because it delivers the most rewarding experience. If someone want a device that can replace a laptop in many circumstances, your clear choice is, once again, the iPad. If they just wanted to read books...usually that meant a Kindle, but not always.

Which left a major gap. There used to be an opportunity for an affordable tablet, or a tablet that focuses on content-consumption and therefore is easier to use than an iPad in many ways. That’s the Fire.

This is the point where I activate that keyboard macro and underscore the fact that the Fire is still a month off from release and that I’ve yet to make even so much as a single fingerprint on one. Real conclusions can only come after the real thing finally ships.

Still, I have a hard time imagining what kinds of options other tablet makers will have, assuming that the Fire delivers and the iPad doesn’t Fire out. If two huge, powerful, confident, and smart retailers have covered the “Affordable populist device” and the “Sophisticated power device” ends of the market . . . what scraps are left for anybody else?



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