Why Amazon's New Tablet Could Beat the iPad

The iPad's sticker price means there's room in the market for a more affordable tablet device


The iPad has been a massive success in the year and a half since its release. For some it has been a laptop replacement, for others a digital reader with dozens of other peripheral uses, and for others the first computer they can use at all. In the year and a half since its release, seemingly every other electronics manufacturer has been trying to build something that would have the same appeal, but so far these efforts have been mostly met with indifference. People don't want a tablet -- they want an iPad.

Amazon's forthcoming tablet just may change that. The -- let's call it the Kindle tablet (or Fire, as we think it'll be called) -- will be smaller, less powerful, and cheaper than Apple's device. And while folks who can't afford a $500 iPad represent a huge market themselves, those of us who want, or already own, an iPad may come to want the Kindle device too. Its expected price of $250 will put it in a completely different affordability category.

Now, everything you've heard about what an "amazing, revolutionary device" the iPad is is true. But here's the thing. Far and away the most important thing it's great at is browsing and reading the internet. (That includes, for a few examples, the New York Times app, the amazing instapaper, and Amazon's own Kindle book reader.) Casual email is a distant second function. And apps like Garage Band, Maps, and Brushes are deservedly celebrated but account for a relatively insignificant proportion of most people's day to day iPad usage.

This makes perfect sense, because anyone who uses a computer outside work uses it primarily for browsing and reading the internet. But the form factor of a laptop is such that you use it while sitting at a desk. An iPad lets you take the internet to places where reading is more comfortable: the couch, the bed, and yes, the bathroom. This, more than everything else put together, is its killer feature.

But as a reading device, the iPad is imperfect. It's way too heavy to hold comfortably, it's too big, and the processor and memory that make it so versatile are overkill for a digital reader.

The argument has been made that a low-cost tablet cannot be a competitor to the iPad, since even the iPad is not a powerful enough computer. But the iPad is a laptop replacement for relatively few people. It's great for email and basic word processing, the aforementioned Garage Band and Brushes apps are great fun for creating music and drawing, and there famously are tens of thousands of other apps to explore. But it falters for the hundreds of big and little tasks we do with our computers that involve using more than one program at a time. (Try posting a video you've found on Twitter to your Tumblr blog. Or try saving an image from the internet, cropping it, and uploading it to your blog. These are things that many computer users do every day, and while they can theoretically be accomplished on an iPad, it takes an extraordinary amount of effort and creative workaround.) The Kindle tablet is even less likely to be a viable laptop replacement than the iPad, but I don't think that's a significant factor in its prospects for success.

So what does the Kindle tablet look like? It's nothing like the Kindle we know now, which is black and white, doesn't have a touch screen, and uses e-ink rather than an LCD display. MG Siegler has seen and used a prototype. He describes something that's outwardly very similar to the iPad, but 7 inches diagonally rather than 10. In other words, it's the size of a paperback book. That should make it around half the weight of the iPad, and exactly perfect for reading. The software includes a web browser, a movie player, and of course a Kindle book reading app. While the interface is custom-made by Amazon, it runs the Android operating system, so the device will be compatible with at least some of the software in the Amazon Appstore. That means there will presumably be some basic native apps available. Once the device takes off, the makers of popular iPad apps will at least have to strongly consider creating versions for it.

In many ways, the Kindle tablet will resemble the Nook color, which has been out for over a year. Amazon has a lot of experience creating reading devices, and we can assume that they've used that time to work on its device and make it great. It'll be faster, and hopefully the software will be better than the current versions of Android, which have kept almost everyone reviewing Android tablets from recommending them. This is the main factor that's allowed the iPad to maintain its stranglehold on the tablet market. The device will tightly integrate with Amazon's website, which sells not just e-books and music, but has recently begun streaming movies.

A year before the iPad was released, I wrote an article describing exactly what I wanted from a tablet: a color Kindle with a halfway decent web browser. I've been an iPad owner since the day it was released, and I absolutely love it. I think Apple's reasons for insisting that only a 10" tablet makes sense are valid: much of what makes the iPad great demands this form factor. But a less ambitious piece of hardware could be perfect at the 7-inch size. The Kindle tablet will certainly be able to do a lot less, and will undoubtedly have inferior software, but I think it may relegate my iPad to something I use occasionally, instead of a daily companion.

I don't think I'm alone in that. But but by far the biggest pool of buyers for the Kindle tablet will be casual computer users for who buying a $500 tablet as a second device is out of the question. I think the number of people who meet that description is an order of magnitude larger than the current number of iPad owners. (My recently retired parents, who are not particularly light computer users, certainly fall into this category.) They've been hearing for a year and a half how great the iPad is, and they want in on it. For many them, the $250 price will be much more attractive, the Amazon brand is if anything more familiar than Apple, and 2011 is the right time to buy.

Image: AP.