The new Kindles

Tech Life
The new Kindle family

The new Kindle family (Image by The Verge)

A couple of days ago, as you know, Amazon introduced a new family of Kindles. Of course, there was much anticipation for the star of the show, the new Amazon tablet called the Kindle Fire, and it is indeed an interesting device. I haven’t got any grand theories to share, but I thought I’d gather a few observations here. Since I dared venture some thoughts before the introduction of the Kindle Fire, it seems only fair to give some impressions after the event.

The Amazon Kindle Press Conference

If you’ve only found liveblogging reports so far, you can watch all the 50 minutes of the press conference on YouTube. This is the first time I’ve seen Jeff Bezos doing a keynote, and he didn’t a bad job. The stage setup and the slides’ layout felt very Apple-like. Bezos is no Steve Jobs of course. He looked very focussed and had a slightly nervous ‘let’s get to business’ approach. His presentation felt more scripted than a Jobs’s keynote, with very few ‘light’ moments or jokes.

I also found the audience to be eerily silent and unresponsive. Lots of camera clicks and flashes when Bezos waved the new Kindles, and almost nothing else. Perhaps I’m too accustomed to Apple events with people cheering and applauding, nevertheless I felt that at least two moments deserved, if not cheering, at least a bit of applause. The first, when Bezos unveiled the $79 plain Kindle. (Imagine an Apple keynote where Jobs — er, Cook — unveils a $79 iPod touch. There probably would be a standing ovation.) The second moment worth praising was the revelation of the Kindle Fire’s price. The climax was looking rather similar to Jobs’s introduction of the first iPad. Bezos showed the Kindle Fire in his hands, showed what it can do, then a slide behind him was summing up all the features of this device, then Bezos, like Jobs with the iPad, rhetorically addressed the audience asking how much such a great device could/should cost. I remember the audience’s reaction at the iPad event: when the $499 price tag materialised on screen the crowd just went WHOA. The $199 price tag of the Kindle Fire was engulfed in silence, which sounded almost like a big ‘whatever’.

Too bad, because $199 is a great price for a very decent, very interesting tablet.

The Kindle Fire is not really an iPad competitor

When I was following This Is My Next’s live blog the other day, this was my very first impression after realising what the Kindle Fire is and does. And of course, among the following commentary, John Gruber as usual perfectly nails the heart of the matter:

Amazon built an alternative to the iPad, rather than a direct competitor. It’s a different market segment. […]

Apple and Amazon are approaching this tablet territory from opposing sides. The iPad takes it on from the high end. It’s the best possible device in that price range from the world’s best maker of devices. The Kindle Fire takes it on from the low end. The iPad is a credible laptop replacement for many people — and with iCloud and another year or two of hardware improvements, that’s going to be true for more and more people. The Kindle Fire is a laptop replacement for almost no one. It’s a peripheral, not a second computer — and it’s priced accordingly. […]

The iPad and Kindle Fire are emblematic of their makers. Apple’s primary business is selling devices for a healthy profit, and they back that up with a side business of selling digital content for those devices. Amazon’s primary business is as a retailer, including as a retailer of digital content. They back that up with a side business of low-cost digital devices that are optimized for on-the-fly purchasing of anything and everything Amazon sells.

I stand by my initial musings. On September 7, in my piece Initial thoughts on the upcoming Amazon Tablet, speaking of the prospective tablet buyer I wrote:

[…] [L]et’s just make a quick comparison between the upcoming Amazon Tablet and an iPad. The possible advantages of the Amazon Tablet over the iPad: a smaller screen (for some the iPad is too big), it’s likely to be lighter and easier to hold, and it costs half the price of the entry-level iPad model; then, of course, it perfectly integrates all Amazon’s services and applications. On the other hand, as already mentioned, the iPad is faster, has a bigger (probably better) screen, has many more apps to choose from (which ensures great versatility), has a better multi-touch interface, more storage, two cameras, better build quality. Again, I won’t say anything regarding iOS vs. Android: depending on the user, the software platform may be the paramount concern or the least important factor.


What perplexes me most is the lack of e-Ink technology. An Amazon Tablet with all those features and e-Ink technology could have interested me enough to postpone my iPad purchase. But a tablet with which you’re supposed to do lots of eBook reading (it’s going to be the Kindle’s big brother, after all) that’s not equipped with such a distinctive and useful feature as e-Ink, well, it’s just another tablet. In other words, those who read a lot of books and love e-Ink will buy a regular Kindle. Those who read a lot and don’t mind reading on a traditional backlit LCD/LED screen, will probably be more tempted to purchase an iPad, unless they find it too heavy to hold for long periods of time and/or can’t afford to spend at least $499 for such a device. Or hate everything Apple.

It’s all about services and content (or: the Kindle Fire is an interface)

Almost nothing in the Kindle presentation was about the hardware. Of course, Amazon is not a hardware manufacturer, it provides services and content. The Kindle is the device to access and enjoy them. The Kindle is an interface. That’s why there is no emphasis on the hardware and no tech specs fetishism. Amazon’s message is this: “We have built this ecosystem, we offer these services and this content, and this is the good-enough hardware we’re giving you to enjoy our offer”. That’s also why the hardware is affordable. As Bezos said and repeated, Premium products at non-premium prices.

If you’re still convinced that the Kindle Fire is a direct competitor of the iPad, just look at how Bezos introduced it. He first talked about the various services Amazon provides: there’s Amazon Web Services, Amazon Prime, Amazon Kindle, Amazon Instant Video, Amazon MP3 Store and Amazon Appstore. Then he says: Is there some way that we can bring all these things together into a remarkable product offering that customers would love? — Yes, the Kindle Fire.

In other words, services are the challenge, the Kindle Fire is the response. The Kindle Fire is Amazon’s best answer to interface the user with its services. The iPad is Apple’s best answer to fill the hardware gap between smartphones and laptops. The Kindle Fire and the iPad happen to find themselves sharing the same tablet ground, but (as Gruber pointed out) they come from two rather different directions.

Too touch for comfort?

In his piece A machine for Reading Books, Lukas Mathis writes:

I’m not against having a touchscreen on an ebook reader. Tapping on a book to open it makes perfect sense, even if it does mean that the screen gets dirty. But having a touchscreen doesn’t preclude you from also adding a hardware button that makes the one single thing people do the most often with your device as easy and seamless as possible.

Mathis is referring to the lack of hardware buttons for turning pages on the Kindle touch. He thinks it’s a bad idea, and I agree with him. When I first saw the Kindle touch, which finally eliminates the barely-usable keyboard, I was ready to order one, but after reading Mathis’ article I changed my mind and now am considering the purchase of the $79 plain Kindle (which, by the way, I’ll pay $109 because the ‘special offers’ Kindles apparently aren’t available for my country). It’s because of this passage, which brings up an issue I didn’t think about at first:

Now, compare [turning pages using a physical button] to turning pages using a touchscreen. First of all, the Kindles don’t have resistive screens. This is usually an advantage, but in this particular case, it means that you can’t rest your finger on the screen. You have to physically lift it before you can turn the page.

Turning pages using a touchscreen also means that you have to cover part of your screen with your thumb.

And it means that your screen will get really dirty, really quickly. This doesn’t matter too much with something like an iPad. When an iPad is turned on, the screen is bright enough that you usually don’t notice the dirt that has accumulated since the last time you wiped it down. The Kindle’s reflective screen is different. I immediately notice when I accidentally touch my Kindle’s screen.

Choosing touch for the new Kindles is a good move to get rid of the atrocious keyboard-based navigation system, but Mathis is right, it’s not an equally good move for page-turning. Hardware buttons give better feedback and remain out of the way, you don’t have to move your hand over the screen and over what you’re reading to turn the page.

Just to throw in a curious comparison: the Newton (specifically the MessagePad 2000 and 2100 models) offers an interesting take on page turning. There aren’t physical buttons to turn pages, either, but the up/down arrows you touch on screen — with the stylus but also with your thumbnail — are located in an area outside the text you’re reading. They’re in the Newton ‘dock’ at the bottom of the screen:

Newton dock

(There is a preference to move them on the left in case you’re left-handed.)

On the Newton they’re not big enough to be practical, and sometimes I accidentally turn to the previous page instead of the next, but in principle it’s not a bad implementation idea: imagine a Kindle touch with a slightly larger screen with ‘touch areas’ along the sides for turning pages without having to cover the screen with your hand and without having to leave fingerprints over the text you’re reading.

Why I’m ordering the non-touch Kindle

I won’t get a Kindle touch for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. I won’t get a Kindle Fire because I will definitely buy an iPad. The new plain Kindle looks more and more appealing. It’s small, lightweight, very affordable, and therefore the perfect ‘why not?’ device. The only thing that annoys me is that it retains the 5-way controller of the classic Kindle. The central button is fine, but despite my small fingers, I find the directional ‘edges’ too small and impractical to use. Oh well, I guess I’ll accept the tradeoff. Also, I think Amazon will sell a lot of these.

You don’t survive without a plan

I believe Amazon will sell a considerable amount of these new Kindles. And by not discontinuing the old Kindle line-up (the now-called ‘Kindle keyboard’ models and the DX), Amazon is really covering all the bases and giving their customers plenty of choices. The Kindle touch is appealing to old customers who want to get rid of the keyboard and don’t mind going all-touch on the screen. It is also appealing to people who are now using other key-based eBook readers and want to go the touch way with a product coming from a good brand and offering a more robust integration with the services that come along with it. People who are in the market for a tablet can now find a cheaper alternative to the iPad, with a decent user interface and a very good ecosystem behind it. For people (like me) who want to grab a good eBook reader and try the Amazon way without spending too much, the new $79/$109 Kindle is quite tempting.

With “you don’t survive without a plan” I’m obviously referring to the tablet market. Which, until a few days ago, was composed of an only credible product (the iPad) and a bunch of nobodies few really cared about. Now the credible products are two. What they have in common is that both their manufacturers know what they’re doing and have built (Apple) and are building (Amazon) a solid ecosystem around their devices. One chooses to buy an iPad or a Kindle Fire because each makes sense. The iPad can work as a lightweight portable computer, is backed by both the App Store and the iTunes Store and can become a really versatile device in your hands. The Kindle Fire can offer you everything Amazon has to offer: books but also movies, music, magazines, apps and games. And from what I’ve seen, Amazon is striving to provide a great user experience and quality (the Kindle Fire’s UI is the best iOS-ification of Android I’ve seen) and has been building a strong range of services you can interface with through the Kindle Fire.

Gruber again:

Attack from a position of strength. Build on your previous successes. That’s what Apple does. That’s what Amazon is doing here. The other guys — the Samsungs, HTCs, Motorolas, RIMs — can’t match Apple’s hardware design, don’t even try to match Apple in terms of original and differentiated software, and struggle to match Apple’s prices because they don’t have the economy of scale advantages Apple does. Those guys can’t match Amazon either, because they have no content to sell. Amazon can give away the razor because they’re already in the business of selling blades. The other guys don’t even have blades to sell.

In other words: why get a Motorola, or a Samsung, or a RIM PlayBook, or whatever? What’s their point? What kind of experience, service, or content, can they deliver? They may appeal to tinkerers, who are a niche inside another relatively small user base, that of tech geeks. They may appeal to hardcore Android supporters. They may be purchased by mistake by the occasional clueless customer who’s looking for ‘something like the iPad, but cheaper’ (to be returned as soon as said customer promptly realises they’re not as fulfilling or well-designed or responsive like an iPad).

These ‘other tablets’ are empty shells, produced by companies without a plan. And they will be burnt very badly by the Kindle Fire, which already seems the more sensible answer for all those who are fascinated by the iPad but they’d like something more affordable, maybe smaller, maybe lighter… Now they have it.

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  1. Alberto says

    Very interesting and thoughtful remark. As to the audience’s unresponsiveness about the price, I think this is all because of Amazon’s attitude towards pricing: Bezos’ firm is well known for the best retail prices in the world, for every kind of product you can even figure out. You buy on Amazon because they have got the best prices on the market. No other reason (products are just the same as anywhere else). So, the brand new Kindle Fire at $199 wasn’t all that surprising. On the contrary, Apple pricing is usually quite the opposite. Ergo, selling a new “magical” product at $499 back in May 2010, gained a burst of enthusiastic reactions. But it’s something deeply inherent in Apple. To me, Amazon’s done a great job. Thus far, they’re the only ones who managed to see what are the key elements necessary to create a real alternative to Apple’s proposal.

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