Amazon Opens Fire

The new Kindle is a tablet for the masses.

Jeff Bezos introduces the Kindle Fire, Amazon's entry into the tablet market
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos holds the new Amazon tablet called the Kindle Fire on September 28, 2011 in New York City.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

To just about any criticism of its new Kindle Fire tablet, Amazon has a two-word answer. It doesn’t come with 3G Internet access? It’s $199. It doesn’t take pictures? It’s $199. It won’t immerse you in HD-rendered scenery as you race a virtual Bugatti through the streets of Tokyo at 180 mph? It’s $199.

It’s a potent pitch. Wax all you want about the superior look and feel and the gee-whiz specs of Apple’s iPad. The reality is that there are a lot of people out there who can’t justify plopping down more than $500 for a shiny toy they don’t really need. But $199 for a shiny toy you don’t really need? Now you’re talking.

The Kindle Fire’s relatively low price will ensure that Amazon will move a lot of product. But don’t believe the hype in the aftermath of Wednesday’s Fire unveiling—Jeff Bezos has not built an iPad killer. Apple is selling its devices at an estimated rate of 10 million per quarter. A lot of people, it seems, can afford to buy an iPad. And if you can afford it, there’s no reason to buy the Kindle Fire instead. Despite its many virtues, it was clear during a brief hands-on appraisal on Wednesday that the new Kindle will be smaller, less sleek, and less versatile than its pricier rival.

Once you look beyond the price tag, the Fire’s specs won’t knock you out. On the plus side, the new Kindle comes with an email client, and it lets you browse the Web via Wi-Fi, with a promising, Flash-enabled browser. There’s no native word processor, however, nor any other productivity apps.

In truth, this is a mediocre Android tablet dressed up as the ultimate media reader. The Fire’s homepage is designed to look like a wooden bookshelf, its central feature a carousel displaying your most recently purchased or consumed media, whether magazine, book, or movie. Your favorite apps sit on the shelf below. Access points to Amazon’s immense online store are ubiquitous, a reminder that the company’s business model is about selling media, not gadgets. Everywhere the device’s mission is clear: to roll all of your media consumption into a single, handheld, seven-inch screen.

The most-revolutionary aspect of the Fire may be its integration with Amazon’s Cloud Drive, which automatically backs up the tablet’s data and syncs it with other devices. You can delete stuff and retrieve it later, or even pause a show on your Fire and have it start automatically from the same point on your laptop. It’s a neat trick, but it’s not going to sway someone who would otherwise buy an iPad. Attendees at Wednesday’s launch event weren’t allowed to play with the Fire, so I was left with concerns that the user experience might disappoint in other ways. For instance, a demo suggested that the screen briefly goes blank when you rotate the tablet from portrait to landscape position, rather than pivoting prettily like the iPad does.

But as my colleague Farhad Manjoo explained in a column that anticipated the Kindle Fire (right down to its price), Amazon doesn’t have to win over the iPad’s customer base to be successful. By offering the same core functionality—a browser, media players, and apps—at less than half the price, it will open up an entirely new market of tablet users. Rather than knocking the iPad from its perch, Amazon is building its own roost on a lower, wider, and hardier branch.

If Amazon succeeds, it will be Barnes & Noble’s Nook that’s overshadowed. Before Wednesday, Amazon had been playing catch-up to B&N, whose Nook Color had leapfrogged the original Kindle technologically, offering color and a touchscreen while Amazon’s display stayed grayscale and inert. The Nook Color 2 is due out shortly, with the latest Android operating system. Since it will be hard-pressed to beat the Fire on price, it will have to wow people with its features just to stay in the game.

On Wednesday, Bezos used the Fire’s price as his primary rhetorical weapon. After laying out the device’s features, he asked, “So, how much is Kindle Fire going to cost? What’s the price of Kindle Fire? How affordable is Kindle Fire?” He paused a beat, then swept one arm toward the giant projection screen behind him as it flashed the numbers in giant boldface. “It’s $199.”

With Steve Jobs out at Apple, there’s an opening in the tech world for a virtuosic showman, someone whose every appearance on stage commands attention. On Wednesday, Bezos showed a Jobs-like ability to communicate what was truly exciting about his new product in an accessible, plainspoken way. When Apple’s new CEO, Tim Cook, announces the iPhone 5 next week, everyone will be wondering if he’s up to the role of Jobs’ successor. Bezos might have just beaten him to it.