2011-10-01

Amazon’s new Kindles – overview and ramifications

This post summarizes what Amazon has introduced on Sep 28, 2011 and explains the ramifications of the introductions.

The models

The most interesting models:
  • Kindle Fire (Wi-Fi): The Kindle Fire is a 7" LCD tablet with a widescreen ratio and a resolution of 1024 × 600. It does have a dual-core processor whose real-world speed has yet to be tested. It weighs 413g (14.6 ounces) and has 8GB internal Flash memory. Battery life is supposed to be up to 7.5 hours of video playback with Wi-Fi off.

    Why does the Kindle Fire look like RIM’s PlayBook? Quoting “The Amazon tablet will look like a PlayBook — because it basically is” by Ryan Block for gdgt.

    [Amazon] turned to Quanta, which helped them "shortcut" the development process by using the PlayBook as their hardware template. Of course, it's never quite that simple, and as I'm told Amazon ran into trouble, and eventually sacrifices were made (like using a slower processor).

    Although Amazon did refresh the ID of their PlayBook derivative, I'm told that this first tablet of theirs is "supposed to be pretty poor" and is a "stopgap" in order to get a tablet out the door for the 2011 holiday season [...]

    The Fire is not a true Android device. It runs an older version of Android underneath a greatly customized user interface. Apps from the Amazon appstore run on Android devices, but apps from the Android Market don’t run on the Fire. It doesn’t have Google’s apps, either. I expect the gap between the Fire and the rest of Android to widen in the future.

  • Kindle Touch, Kindle Touch 3G: These are nice improvements of the existing models. They have the same e-paper display, but drop the keyboard and navigation buttons in favor of a touch interface (see below). Navigating content on the Kindle has always been a little awkward and the keyboard has always been a little ugly, so that is good news. Furthermore, in the past, adding a touch-sensitive layer to a screen meant reducing the contrast of the e-paper. Sony recently pioneered using infrared sensors for that purpose which does not negatively affect readability. The Kindle Touch uses the same technology. More specs: The same 6" display as the existing Kindle, 8% lighter, 11% smaller.
The on-screen keyboard of the Kindle Touch.
Other Kindle models:
  • Kindle (Wi-Fi) – the bare-bones entry model. Quoting Shawn Blanc: “I think the “plain” Kindle — one with the 5-way controller — is in the product lineup primarily to help boost sales of the Kindle Touch.”
  • Kindle Keyboard, Kindle Keyboard 3G, Kindle DX – the legacy models. Quoting Shawn Blanc: “I think these are still for sale because they are still in stock.” Anything else would be dumb.
Prices:
Kindle $79 $109 without ads
Kindle Touch $99 $139 without ads
Kindle Touch 3G$149$189 without ads
Kindle Fire $199 without ads

Future models

  • Oh, one more thing about the Amazon tablet: the second, better version is coming very soon”.
    My sources tell me the second-gen Kindle tablet (or Kindle Fire, as it's now been dubbed) will be out in Q1 of 2012 -- yes, that soon. That was always the plan, but the delays of the v1 product have messed up Amazon's release cycle.

    And what's worse, the second tablet -- which Amazon didn't just take more or less off the shelf from ODM manufacturer Quanta -- seems to be the device Amazon really believes in.

    When it comes, it will be a Kindle Fire with a 10" screen. So it probably won’t replace the smaller model.
  • I would love to see a Kindle DX Touch, that is, a Kindle Touch with a larger screen.

Silk – the Kindle Fire’s web browser

Silk is the the web browser of the Kindle Fire, which is optimized for mobile browsing. Quoting “Amazon Kindle Fire, the Silk Browser and its Impact on Web Development” by Craig Buckler for SitePoint:
  • Silk is a custom webkit browser.
  • Page requests are routed through an Amazon proxy server.
  • The proxy will optimize content for the Fire. Resources will be cached on EC2 servers so DNS lookups and file downloads are minimized. In addition, large images may be resized to fit the device.
  • Amazon monitors usage patterns. For example, if it notices that a large proportion of SitePoint users visit the HTML5 Dev Center, it will pre-push that page to the device so it can be rendered instantly.
  • The browser supports Flash — it would be madness not to! [I don’t agree. I never miss Flash on the iPad.]
This kind of optimized “cloud mode” gave Silk its name:
The Silk browser maintains a single persistent connection to Amazon's cloud (using Google's fast SPDY protocol), through which requests are sent and content is received. This single connection to the Web is what lends Silk its name—as Amazon puts it, a single thread of silk is an "invisible and yet incredibly strong connection between two things." [Ryan Paul for Ars Technica]
I suppose that the smoothness of Silk (as in “smooth browsing experience”) also made that name appealing to Amazon. The cloud mode has privacy implications – quoting the “Amazon Silk Terms & Conditions”:
Amazon Silk also temporarily logs web addresses — known as uniform resource locators (“URLs”) — for the web pages it serves and certain identifiers, such as IP or MAC addresses, to troubleshoot and diagnose Amazon Silk technical issues. We generally do not keep this information for longer than 30 days.
This is similar to what internet service providers already do or how Opera Mini works. Thankfully, you can switch the cloud mode off. Quoting again the Terms & Conditions:
You can also choose to operate Amazon Silk in basic or “off-cloud” mode. Off-cloud mode allows web pages generally to go directly to your computer rather than pass through our servers. As such, it does not take advantage of Amazon’s cloud computing services to speed-up web content delivery.
Note that it is not clear whether the URL logging still happens in off-cloud mode.

Kindle Fire versus iPad and Android

Is the Kindle Fire really – I don’t want to say it – an ... iPad killer? Yes and no. I suspect it will sell well and might be the first tablet that will actually force Apple to react. On the other hand, the iPad is more powerful and closer to a real computer than the Fire. For example, the Fire only has 8GB of storage for offline data, while the iPad has between 16GB and 64GB. The Fire is to the iPad what the iPad is to a notebook. And the iPad will continue to become more powerful. The first step is the introduction of iOS 5 in the coming weeks which will make it a viable stand-alone device (no need to connect it to a PC, any more).

The Fire will likely open a new tablet category: people who are in principle interested in performing the basic tablet tasks, but don’t want to pay as much money for an iPad. The basic tablet tasks are:

  • Email
  • Web
  • Consuming content (video, audio, books, newspapers, etc.)
Those people are less technically demanding and don’t mind using their mobile phones for these tasks. The Fire mainly gives them more space. And the $199 price is quite conducive to impulse buying. A few more Fire pros and cons:
  • Screen resolution: At 1024 × 600, it almost has the same resolution as the iPad’s 1024 × 768. So, if you have good eyesight, you get almost the same information density. However, size does matter in this case and there is much more that you can do with a 9.7" display. Using the Fire’s widescreen display in portrait mode will also be awkward. Widescreen is great for movies, but less than ideal for everything else. Standard paper sizes do have an aspect ratio of 1:√2 for a reason.
  • The Kindle Fire only comes with built-in Wi-Fi, there is no 3G model.
  • The iPad has Bluetooth and can connect an external Bluetooth keyboard [1]. The Fire does not have Bluetooth.
  • The Fire’s processor being dual-core sounds fast. I’m eager to see how it performs in real-world tests.
  • The Fire will be useful right from the start (as opposed to many “real” Android tablets). Quoting “Amazon's New Kindles” on Daring Fireball:
    Back in June, Harry McCracken laid out the key question to ask of any tablet: “Why should somebody buy this instead of an iPad?” The Kindle Fire is interesting because it’s the first one with a good answer: it’s much cheaper, Amazon offers a digital content ecosystem that rivals Apple’s (fewer apps, more books), and millions of people already use and enjoy Kindle hardware.
  • It seems like Amazon does not yet trust its built-in email client. Quoting the description of the email app on the Kindle Fire product page:
    Stay in touch using our built-in email app that gets your webmail (Gmail, Yahoo!, Hotmail, AOL etc.) into a single inbox. Import your messages and contact lists from other email accounts. Additional email apps are available in our Amazon Appstore for Android.
    Why would they even mention that on an otherwise very succinct page?
Amazon versus Apple. Om Malik quotesAmazon, the Company That Ate the World” by Brad Stone for BusinessWeek:
“What we are doing is offering premium products at non-premium prices,” Bezos told BusinessWeek magazine. “We don’t think of the Kindle Fire as a tablet. We think of it as a service . . . Certainly this is a for-profit business . . . Let’s put it this way. We are and always have been very comfortable at operating at extremely low margins.”
Thus:
  • Amazon uses hardware to better sell goods and services.
  • Apple uses services (such as iTunes and iCloud) to support its hardware.
Both companies come from different directions, but along the way, Amazon has become a powerful hardware vendor and Apple has become a powerful content vendor.

The conciseness of Amazon’s marketing is remarkable and reminiscent of Apple’s: The lineup is easy to understand and clearly delineated by features and by price. The product pages are clean and sell the devices based on what you can do with them, not based on specs. I like Amazon’s attention to details. For example, the icons visualizing the different user interfaces in the comparison table.

How should the competition react to the Fire? With the Fire, real Android tablets will have a hard time gaining any traction in the market. If you want power, you buy an iPad. If you want cheap, you can buy one of the smaller Android tablets or the much cheaper Fire – which has a convincing content story, to boot. Unless they react, Apple will lose the low-price segment of the tablet market, something that they may be willing to do. If not, they could introduce an iPad with a smaller screen (7"?), but with the same 1024×768 resolution, at a higher pixel density. That way, existing iPad apps won’t have to be changed to run on the new device. Lastly, Apple does not currently offer streaming video with a monthly subscription to compete with Amazon, Netflix, etc. They probably should and it might already be in the works.

What should you buy?

Depending on how much you value your soul, you’ll buy your Kindle without “Special Offers” (or – as anyone who is not a marketer calls them – “ads”). I would hate to have ads displayed during normal use of my device.
  • Kindle Keyboard: Compared to the Kindle Touch, it’s too clumsy to use and not significantly cheaper. Furthermore, it will go away soon. So unless you really can’t afford the slightly higher price of the Kindle Touch, you should not buy the Kindle Keyboard.
  • Kindle DX: This model still has a purpose, as it allows you to read A4/letter PDF documents easily, due to its larger screen size.
  • The Kindle Touch is a no-brainer – cheap, easy to use, a great dedicated reading device (nothing else!). Some lament the missing page turning buttons on the Touch; the only advantage that I can see is that your screen gets less finger smudges. This has never been a problem for me with the iPad.
  • I don’t recommend the non-Touch Kindle. Make absolutely sure you won’t miss a touch user-interface if you buy one. Navigating via buttons is slow. And while it might not seem like much, the little conveniences add up to make a touch device much more enjoyable to use.
  • With the Kindle Fire, it makes sense to wait until the 10" model comes out, in order to compare the two. However, the cheap price is the argument for buying the current Fire. The 10-incher will be more expensive and will find it harder to compete with the iPad.
I own a first-generation iPad and a Kindle DX. And I see no reason to buy a Kindle Fire, but the Kindle Touch is very tempting, given its low price. I really enjoy e-paper devices such as the Touch, they lead to a calm, soothing reading experience that comes very close to actual paper, because there are no distractions and because there is no backlighting.

More information on the web

Conclusion

From what we can see right now, Amazon has landed hits with the new Kindles – as predicted [2]. They have innovated and executed quickly and carefully.

If I may, one last gripe of mine: It escapes me why companies keep copying Apple’s Cover Flow which completely breaks down for any sizable amount of items. Granted, it looks nice, but has little value, usability-wise.

Related reading

  1. Multi-touch versus keyboard
  2. Amazon as a competitor to Google and Apple

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