When we took a close, first-hand look at the Amazon Kindle Fire and new eReaders on Wednesday, the main question that sprang to mind centered on why the series of new features detailed in demos at the New York City press launch aren't spread more evenly across the whole Kindle "family." It only makes sense that the new Kindle Fire tablet would do better against the iPad if it came with the same free 3G included in a less pricey Kindle Touch reader. After all, the Fire is coming up against the iPad on a bunch of other levels, right?
For instance, in place of the black & white eInk screens of Amazon's three new dedicated eReaders, the Fire will feature a color LCD based on the same IPS technology that shows up in iPad screens, noted Steve Kessell, senior VP at Amazon, talking with me during a demo at the crowded event.
Also, apparently under the inspiration of both Apple's App Store, Amazon will offer an app store for the Fire which will be distinct from the Amazon Appstore for Android already established on the Web. Plans call for testing apps for use with the Android Gingerbread-enabled Fire, and for then "curating" the Fire's app store, said Dave Limp, Amazon's VP for Kindle, in another interview at the launch.
In addition, Amazon hopes to outdo Apple and other tablet rivals by exploiting ts EC2 cloud services to give the Fire super fast browsing through a new browser named "Silk", plus automatic, user-unattended storage and synchronization through separate technologies. The improved browsing experience will be available exclusively on the Fire (for the time being, anyway. Amazon, though, will consider bringing Silk to other device platforms, "if our users demand it," Kessell told TabletPCReview.
Fire Might Get EasyReach and X-Ray, But not 3G
Also according to Kessell, some time down the road, Amazon will probably outfit the Fire with EasyReach and X-Ray, two new bells-and-whistles introduced this week for Amazon's new Touch and Touch 3G eReaders. As witnessed in a demo at yet another booth, EasyReach is designed to let you use gestures for navigating the screen with only one hand (either the right or the left). It's obvious how this could definitely come in handy if you want to hang on to a subway strap with one hand while reading an eBook with the other, for instance.
In contrast, X-Ray allows for automatic downloads of supplementary information about book characters and historical events when you're downloading e-content. You can then access this info from directly within the eBook, wherever a term comes up that piques your curiosity.
Yet, while EasyReach and X-Ray are niceties, it's the free (and also contract-free) 3G wireless in the 3G model that's destined to sell that device. US customers buying the Touch 3G will get 3G access through AT&T in the US, and via international carriers when traveling overseas.
Amazon, though, has no plans whatsoever at this time to roll out 3G access to the Fire. The reason boils down to price. In comparison to the iPad 2, which lists for around $500 and up, or B&N's $249 Nook Color tablet, the Fire will be priced at merely $199.
Amazon's three new dedicated e-readers will go for even less: $149 for the Touch 3G, $99 for the Touch, and $79 for a fourth model, which will not be touch-enabled.
"Free 3G access just isn't going to happen for the Fire at pricing of $199," Kessell told me. He couldn't have sounded much more definite about that.
Despite the abundant numbers of demos at Amazon's press event on Tuesday, Amazon kept hands-on access to the four new devices to a minimum. Officially, journalists weren't allowed to touch the gadgets at all, although some Amazon staffers were more lenient than others.
One rep let us touch the back of the Fire, but not the front (evidently, to keep our fingerprints off of the screen). We did get a chance to play around some with the budget-oriented, non-touch-enabled $79 device.
None of the readers in the new family use hard keyboards, and this one is no exception. Instead, the budget eReader uses the same virtual keyboard as the Touch and Touch 3G, except that its soft keyboard is controlled not through touch, but via five buttons along the bottom of the front panel.
You also use those same five keys for navigating eBook pages. The buttons seemed quite responsive, although there's undoubtedly some kind of learning curve involved in finding out just what to do with them.
Fire and iPad: Different Heritages, Different Price Points
So how might the Fire fare against the iPad? Where the iPad is part of an Apple iOS family that also includes an astoundingly successful smartphone (the iPhone) and a widely used music player (the iPod touch), the Fire's heritage is clearly in eReaders.
Although Amazon can leverage its cloud services to offer ultra-fast browsing and easy sync up, for instance, the company has no other "smart" devices under its belt, and no established army of app developers. Amazon could face some challenges with app development and optimization.
On the other hand, the Fire's low price point in relation to the iPad, and Amazon's trove of eBooks and other e-content, including movies, could tend to outweigh some of that -- particularly with the holidays approaching and the economy still at a murky standstill. At least, that's how things appear this week.
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