So the news is out at last, and it's a stunner: not one new Kindle, but FOUR of them are on the way, with prices ranging from $79 for a basic eInk model to -- not $300... not $250... but $199 for the Kindle Fire tablet. I nearly drove off the road when I heard it on NPR this afternoon. I could almost visualize Steve Jobs' big screen slide presentation of the then-amazing $499 iPad entry price being crushed to dust beneath a massive $199 price point graphic. THUD!!! The battle has begun.
Don't get me wrong, I love my iPad. Use it all the time, and will continue to do so. But the specs on Amazon's first entry into the tablet wars is the first significant shot across the bow of Apple's floating fortress. And frankly, the two devices aim at very different markets (albeit with a fair amount of overlap). Apple has done an utterly miserable job of satisfying my reading habit, and as far as I'm concerned the iBookstore is not far behind Borders in its success rate for digital conversion. The iPad is simply not a serious reading device for anything but comics and the handful of interactive graphic novels that have as yet found their way onto the market. Amazon, on the other hand, has almost single-handedly made digital literature a household trend. They own the market. And having that much content makes virtually giving away the necessary tool to use it a brilliant strategy. Now, for less than the price of three hardbacks you can have an eInk Kindle with immediate access to millions of books - 2 million of which are free. How is that not a stunning economic value? If you thought last holiday season was big for digital, just wait. You're about to see something truly amazing.
Last week, Apple cut its manufacturing orders for iPads by half, and one has to wonder if they got wind of what was coming today. Get this: you can buy all four of the new Kindle devices - or six base model Kindles - for less than the price of one entry level iPad. Not that you would likely want to, but it makes a serious point. For those considering an ereader (or two or three) as gift items this year, $79 is pretty appealing. It will certainly make it a possibility for a lot of shoppers for whom the iPad, or even a NookColor was just not a serious consideration. Seeing the price point of an ereader under $100 was a day I've been waiting for with much anticipation for a long, long time (I've been reading on pocket pc's and such for nearly twenty years now), but a price under $80 was not something I had expected to see. And today Amazon gave us two ereaders under $100.
So here's the scoop on the new Kindle devices. As you can see from the pics, there are three hardware layouts: one 7" tablet with a capacitive touchscreen (available in WiFi only at the moment), and two Kindle formats: one with with a standard 5-way controller and WiFi only ($79), and one with a new eInk touchscreen interface, available in WiFi ($99) or 3G models ($149). You can get all the specs on the relevant Amazon pages, so I won't go into that here. What I will point out are some of the more outstanding features that makes these truly amazing entries into the digital reading device market. So astounding was the announcement of the tablet price point that it virtually overshadowed the news of a Generation 4 Kindle with an eInk touchscreen. That alone is a huge step forward - not that this is a first, but on a Kindle it will be the first that is a success. As you can see from the spec shots, the new eInk models are far smaller than past Kindles, but with the same 6" screen size: the touchscreens are 11% smaller, while the base model is 18% smaller - small enough, in fact, to easily slip into the pocket of your jeans. In addition, the touchscreen is 8% lighter, while the base model is an astonishing 30% lighter at 5.98 ounces: far less than the weight of a single paperback. A new feature that is really exciting is X-Ray, which allows you to tap the screen once and access a virtual database of info on fictional or historical characters, places, phrases, topics, or what have you, as well as descriptions and reviews from Shelfari and Wikipedia.
But today was really the Kindle Fire's day. And it can really be summed up in one word: CLOUD. As nice as all the other features of the Fire are, the one that truly sets it apart is the cloud. The Kindle Fire comes with 8 gigs of storage, but you won't really need it (except maybe for games). Just as with the previous Kindles, anything you buy on Amazon is held in perpetual storage for you in their archive. But unlike before, now you can stream that content without ever downloading it onto your device (although you can do that too if you like, say, for when you'll be traveling and away from WiFi for awhile). The Fire's dual core processor is fast enough to stream music while browsing the web, or read a book while downloading videos. And with the Fire, Whispersync extends to video as well as books, so you can resume a movie on your TV where you left off on your tablet, and your place in ebooks is synced with any Kindle reader. Then there's the browser. Amazon put out a separate press release just for its new browser, dubbed Silk, which utilizes all of Amazon's substantial customer data and cloud resources to customize each user's experience and accelerate the browser speed (read more about that here).
The one drawback to the Kindle Fire (and it's potentially a big one, although for Kindle users its nothing new) is its lack of support for the ePub format. That's right: Amazon's tablet will NOT read ePubs natively, although as an Android device with a web broswer, you should be able to do so via apps (how easy this will be has yet to be seen, since its onboard app store is also Amazon's). Honestly, however, this is no real surprise, since Amazon wants you to buy your content from them, and can only sell the Kindles at these prices if you do. And to be fair, the lack of ePub support is offset quite nicely by the tablet's Flash support. With a color screen now in play for Kindle users, Amazon's propriety ebook format may well give ePub a run for its money where children's books and graphic novels are concerned (and for graphic novel fans, yes, that is the Watchmen on the tablet there: it will be available for the first time in digital exclusively on the Kindle). New Kindle formatting possibilities is something I plan to keep my eye on. I imagine some changes are on their way for the Kindle Direct Publishing program, and I'll let you know as soon as I know.
The Kindle Fire will sell out fast - very likely within a week, if not by this weekend - as Amazon only placed advanced orders for 900,000 units to be made. But since they won't ship until November 15th, that was a pretty wise idea: if they sell more they have plenty of time to crank up production, and if not, no loss. But I honestly can't imagine that will be the case. If people were willing to throw away a hundred bucks on an HP tablet - with virtually no content or plans for future support - you can bet they'll jump at a device which is nothing short of a window into a world of digital wonders: Amazon now has 18 million reasons to do so (and growing every day).