One secret to success I was reminded of recently goes something like this: Set expectations and then make sure you exceed them, even by a little. That’s what Apple has done with the iPad, which is the king of the tablet market because it gives people what they want and more at a reasonable price point. And that’s why the host of tablet competitors have fallen down, because they basically can’t prove their value to users.
It’s through this lens that the Amazon Kindle Fire looks like a big seller in waiting. It’s a straightforward tablet that doesn’t try to outdo the iPad; it’s got simpler ambitions with pricing to match. I got a chance to see the device up close in controlled demos and though it was brief, it felt like a polished product that should exceed what people expect out of a tablet at that price. (See a video demo at the bottom of this post.) The device doesn’t look like any Android tablet, and for all intents and purposes, it really isn’t. It’s largely Amazon’s creation built off of the Android base, and it comes off looking really good.
The presentation is simple, inviting and intuitive, and what you get for $199 is impressive. The screen looks great and has wide viewing angles with its IPS display, though there is some glare to deal with. The body itself looks similar to the BlackBerry Playbook, but remember, RIM’s device started at $499 and just recently started getting price cuts down to $299. Amazon is no doubt subsidizing the price with the anticipation of making it up on sales of digital media.
And in that regard, the tablet is a great showcase. It’s pretty snappy and seems purpose-driven to get you into media. Users are greeted by a book shelf that offers search up top and then options for newsstand, books, music, videos, docs and apps. The carousel below is familiar to people who’ve seen Apple’s Cover Flow, but it nonetheless feels polished and shows you the content you’ve most recently interacted with. The bottom shelves will be where users pin their favorites for quick access. There’s no physical button on the front and all the actions are controlled through on-screen gestures like tapping the top to pull up a menu or swiping up from the bottom to reveal functions like a back button, search and the home screen icon.
Videos look very nice on the screen, and books maintain the familiar Kindle feel though with a back-lit display. The apps, at least the ones I saw so far, look and play well. The music player is clean and can run in the background. And tabbed browsing is very quick, thanks to Amazon’s Silk Browser, which works in the cloud to optimize delivery.
There are moments when the Kindle Fire stutters for a second and the screen appeared to be not as instantly responsive like the iPad. And it doesn’t offer a fuller computing experience. For example, there’s no calendar or mapping tool. We weren’t able to see what the email application is like, though I’m told it doesn’t have support for corporate accounts. There’s no camera, GPS or microphone. And it’s limited to whatever Android apps are submitted to Amazon’s Appstore, which is above 15,000 apps. Some of these will not run on the Kindle Fire because they engage hardware features that the Fire doesn’t have. We also didn’t get to actually test the device out personally, so we’ll have to see if the performance holds up under heavier scrutiny.
Amazon said they’re making and expect to sell many millions of devices. I think that’s totally possible, if the company stays focused on managing expectations and delivering a great media experience while quashing any initial talk of taking on the iPad. More than the army of Android tablets, the RIM Playbook or even the Barnes & Noble Nook Color, the Kindle Fire seems like the best deal around. It’s not trying to be an all-purpose tablet, but instead has a clear goal and a price that fits. After all, at $199, with all media assets Amazon brings to the table, it’s easy to justify taking a chance on the Kindle Fire.