September 29, 2011 1:06 am

Amazon tablet fires its ambitions

As Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, strolled confidently through his presentation unveiling the Kindle Fire tablet computer, the target whose name hung unspoken in the air was Apple.

At one point on Wednesday, a deadpan Mr Bezos pulled up a giant image of a white USB cable, which millions of consumers have used to send content between their laptops and Apple’s iPods and iPads. Members of the audience chuckled because they guessed what was coming.

“Syncing should be done invisibly, in the background, wirelessly – and it should actually work,” Mr Bezos said.

After a year littered with failed attempts to match the iPad, from the HP TouchPad to the BlackBerry PlayBook, it might seem rash for another pretender to throw sand in the face of the mighty Apple. This time, though, things could be different.

With a technology architecture and business strategy that differ markedly from the earlier flops, Amazon has instantly elevated itself to become the first true challenger to the iPad, according to tech industry analysts.

Central to Amazon’s technology approach is a stripped-down piece of hardware that is designed to fit neatly into the new world of “cloud computing”. That sets it apart from a raft of other tablets, most of which have tried – and failed – to match the high-end iPad in looks and capabilities while lacking the tremendous economies of scale that Apple has benefited from as the first-mover in the new tablet market.

Device prices

Amazon Kindle Fire: $199

Apple iPad 2: from $499

Samsung Galaxy: from $199

BlackBerry PlayBook: from $499

Barnes & Noble Nook Color: $249

To change the rules of the game and reach a price below $200, Amazon has reduced the size of the screen – one of the most expensive components of a mobile device – to 7 inches. But it is still likely to have given up most, if not all, of its hardware profits. The similar PlayBook costs around $205 to produce, according to research firm IHS iSuppli, though Amazon will have saved itself some money by skipping a camera.

“It’s incredible value for its specifications,” said Richard Doherty, an analyst at Envisioneering, a tech research firm.

But Mr Bezos does not want potential customers to dwell for too long on the hardware. Instead, his commercial success will depend on whether consumers can be persuaded to haul their digital lives on to a new platform.

The significance of the Fire “isn’t the device itself”, said Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg. “The PC is not about personal computing anymore, it’s about the personal cloud.”

From the software interface to a new type of browser and Amazon’s technology for syncing content between devices, everything about the Fire is geared towards making it easier to access content that resides on Amazon’s servers – whether that means listening to songs or watching videos on its “cloud” services, or shopping in the Amazon store.

Though using Google’s Android operating system, Amazon has developed a simpler interface that is designed to showcase its own services. Earlier this year it also launched its own version of Google’s online app store, bringing a more selective approach to the uncontrolled jumble that has left the experience of using other Android tablets far behind Apple.

In another shift, the Fire will come with a new browser, called Silk, that divides the computing tasks of displaying content between the browser itself and Amazon’s back-end infrastructure. That will make pages load faster, according to Amazon.

The benefits to Amazon could be far greater than this, though. Shifting computing effort on to Amazon’s own infrastructure plays to its strengths as a “cloud computing” company, said Al Hilwa, an analyst at IDC. As one of the biggest digital infrastructure companies, Amazon already hosts plenty of content on behalf of other companies and will be able to attract more media companies by offering to manage and distribute their content more efficiently.

This new architectural approach could give a new twist to some of the big questions hanging over cloud computing. As Mr Gartenberg noted, pushing all browsing through Amazon could raise privacy concerns. He added, though, that Amazon will give users the option to turn off what he called its “split-personality” browser and has said that it would not collect any personal information.

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