The Kindle tablet is coming. (You may have heard a little about this.) Amazon's just redesigned its main website with changes that make it more tablet-friendly, and one writer is even claiming to have used the device. It's believed to cost "hundreds" less than the iPad does, and this alone has excited the tech world with the idea that it could be the first big rival to Apple's machine. But if it is to grab a market share, Amazon absolutely has to get other things right.
Let's not mince words: If Amazon doesn't get the Kindle tablet right hardware-wise, it's deader than a dodo.
This starts with its looks. Amazon's current Kindles owe more to the Casio pocket calculators of our youth than the slick, slab PC of science fiction, and this simply won't cut it in a world where Apple's set an extraordinarily high bar. Checking out Apple's competition, it's easy to spot that the cream of the crop—devices like the Xoom and the Galaxy Tab are in the same class, but come with a few extra fussy details. In terms of sheer design alone, if Amazon is to wow its audience, it needs to compete with Motorola and Samsung, at least.
Or it needs to completely simplify its approach, and give its tablet the same kind of no-nonsense, straightforward form-meets-function redesign that Barnes & Noble gave their new mini-Nook e-reader. If Amazon tries this route, it may find itself pleasing a generation of customers who want to try the tablet computing experience, but are nervous and want simplicity.
Given the downward price-point for the Amazon tablet, a simpler, smaller, no-frills design would seem to be in the offing. But the price also plays into another thing: guts. The Kindle tablet simply has to be worth its investment. As well as performing seamlessly as an e-reader, it's also got to be able to cope with high-resolution video footage, deliver excellent audio from MP3s and be able to cope with at least a basic level of tablet-friendly games like Angry Birds. No stuttering, no slowness, no low-res graphics will do. We're assuming that Amazon's not aiming at a super high-end peformance, to rival the iPad 2 (and imminent 3) or its Android peers, but that doesn't mean customers will tolerate poor hardware—there're plenty of cheap low-end Android tablets not selling in countless electronics stores already.
Battery life needs to best Apple's 10 hours of web-surfing use, and approach the challenge set by the Kindle e-reader's massive battery lifespan, gained from its low energy-consuming display tech.
And the display is the biggest component that has to impress. If Amazon is to convince customers that its Kindle tablet screen is fabulous (after all the hype that e-ink displays on Kindle e-readers are much better for reading on than LCD displays like that of the iPad), then it has to really deliver. It has to be a very high pixel density, with high contrast and viewing angles and daylight-readable—at least to some extent. Amazon either has to buy the very best LCD tech it can afford, or go with an alternative next-gen tech like Mirasol's or Pixel QI's—both of which are hybrids, to a degree, of e-ink and LCD's capabilities.
Amazon's tablet has to deliver on more than hardware—the HP TouchPad was technically impressive, and its wireless charging and data-sharing powers far surpassed anything Apple currently offers, but it still failed in the market, partly because consumers are aware that when they buy an iPad they're also buying Apple's enormous ecosystem. There's iTunes, an app nearly every customer is already familiar with, and then there are the hundreds of thousands of apps that run on iPhones and iPads seamlessly—available with just a few simple clicks from Apple's own store and with no issues about compatibility. There's also a huge array of third party add-ons and peripherals that can extend or personalize the way the iPad is used.
Amazon has made moves in this direction: It's recenly optimized its store UI to be more tablet-friendly, and it's been aggressively developing and promoting its own curated version of the Android Marketplace—to keep out the rot that beseiges the Google marketplace, and keep high-quality apps and their developers pushing content via Amazon's store front. But Amazon's really got to make sure all of this plays seamlessly with its tablet, making the user experience much more than "reading books on a tablet bought from Amazon."
Basically it has to be much more than a glossy digital catalog for Amazon's content stores.
And if Amazon has forked Android and has its own OS layered on top of it, then it has to be perfectly polished, and a joy to use. It has to be as intuitive as Apple's user experience, and it has to work seamlessly with Amazon's own music, video and book content. And it has to do it well: Again, Palm's WebOS was in several ways superior to Apple's, but the device just didn't catch the public's eye. It's got to delight customers with how well it works, how pleasant an experience it is to buy an e-book, or how nice it is that any app in the appstore works perfectly.
At the kind of prices that are rumored for Amazon's machine, it's approaching a commodity level...and if customers find that "it just works" isn't an epithet that applies to the device, then they'll probably have no qualms about eBay-ing it and saving for an iPad or a Galaxy Tab, instead.
The Advertising and PR
How it's promoted may be one of the most important things that will help the Kindle tablet fly or fall. Amazon can't go with "It's cheaper than an iPad, and can do almost as much!" as a promotional line because that market is already over-served. It also can't quite go with "like a Kindle e-reader, but can do much more" because it's actually a different sort of product—in a new paradigm that Apple has totally defined, shaped, owned, copyrighted, and advertised the hell out of.
Perhaps the best way for Amazon to play it is to just go right ahead and promote the strengths of its device, list its lowish cost, suggest that if you buy an ad-supported version it'll be even cheaper, play up the "play Angry Birds" and "update your Facebook status" apps and keep it simple. After all, the Kindle isn't on every billboard or TV advert, and Amazon's PR campaign can hardly be called "glitzy" or even, for that matter, sleek. And yet it has sold well, on its own merits. Imagine.
[Homepage image: Flickr user antrix]