Amazon Channels Apple At Kindle Fire Launch

Yesterday’s Amazon product extravaganza shows how much its slate business has become like Apple’s—and how much it hasn’t.

The founder and CEO paced across the stage before a massive screen displaying the company’s achievements in recent years—skyrocketing sales of media and a heritage of innovative, beloved gadgets. Then he brandished the new wonder, showing its surprising features and teasing with questions along the lines of "what should we charge for it?" before naming an equally surprising low price.

Steve Jobs? Could be. Or it could be Amazon front man Jeff Bezos.

Yesterday’s debut of Amazon’s $199 Kindle Fire tablet as well as the surprisingly low-priced basic Kindle ($79), Kindle Touch ($99), and Kindle 3G ($149), had the slick graphics, detailed demos, rhetorical "what if?" questions and crescendo of announcements typical of an Apple product gala.

Missing, though, was the fawning applause of a beholden, fanboi media. Hey, Bezos can’t become the next Jobs overnight.

His latest presentation—like one of Apple's, but not quite Apple—symbolizes the many ways that Seattle is emulating Cupertino with the debut of the new Kindle devices.

With the Kindle Fire in particular, Amazon has embraced Apple’s hallmark in a closed, curated software and media environment. Bezos said at the launch event Wednesday in New York, "Kindle is an end-to-end service.... One thing about building a purpose-built device: You can obsess over the details that matter to readers." Jobs said, at the iPad 2 launch on March 2, "The hardware and the software and the applications need to intertwine in an even more seamless way than they do on a PC." 

Before the launch, journalists were dismissing the Fire as just the BlackBerry Playbook with different branding. From a hardware perspective, that’s on point. But the way software and services "intertwine" with the gadget looks a lot more like an iPad than a Playbook or other competing tablet. 

While the Fire OS is based on Android, Amazon asserts that the software is "built from the ground up." SVP for Kindle, Steve Kessel, described it that way yesterday noting, "This is not a Google Android device. This is an open-source platform that we built on."

The Kindle Fire will run Android apps, but specifically those that have been evaluated and accepted into the Amazon Appstore—a policy (and name) emulating Apple's tightly controlled practice.

Per Kessel, "If we believe the experience is optimal for the Kindle Fire, we will make it available on the Appstore." He said that "thousands" of those apps would be available at the product launch on November 15. The company won’t stop "side-loading" of apps from other sources (no need to jailbreak), but does nothing to make that easy. For example, the Android Market app isn’t preinstalled on the Kindle Fire.  

Amazon also built its own web browser, Silk, that stands out for its connection with Amazon’s cloud service, which does the heavy processing of web pages to speed downloads. (In that respect, Amazon emulates not iOS but browser maker Opera and the "Turbo" technology in its Opera Mobile app.)

Along with a curated app selection, the Kindle Fire is also tied to a closed set of media offerings. That had always been the case with other Kindles and e-books (way more restrictive than the iPad) but now extends to video and music.

In fact, the Fire is really an accessory for Amazon’s media selection—"a purpose-built device"—more than the iPad is for Apple's media. Apple was a hardware company first. In many ways, it remains so. 

With all the Kindle products, including the Fire, Amazon is trying to do the opposite. Aside from bragging about the high-quality screen (similar tech to the iPads, but at 7 inches vs. their 9.7), Bezos scarcely mentioned the Fire’s specs. All that matters is that they are sufficient to run the content.

That priority comes out in pricing. Amazon can’t be making money on the Kindle Fire. According to an April article on IntoMobile, in the BlackBerry Playbook (a similar device), the components alone cost about $200. For the iPad 2, the gadget teardown masters at iSuppli estimated a cost of about $320 on the 32GB, 3G version that sells for $729.

The Kindle Fire is virtually locked into Amazon’s content store because that’s where the money is. And the E-ink Kindle readers have another source of revenue—ads that display on a user's screensaver when they're not reading, or on the bottom of the home screen (so they don't interrupt reading). 

Yesterday, Bezos announced that these ads will feature special deals from Amazon Local. Ad-supported software is common. Now, it feels like Amazon is pushing ad-supported hardware.

These are the ways that Amazon can offer what Bezos kept calling a "premium product at non-premium price."

Another way that Amazon is not like Apple: The "cloud" came first, device second. Amazon’s been selling digital audio and video long before it had this purpose-built device for them. And top-notch cloud service is what made the original Kindle possible—free cellular downloads and automatic synching across devices with technology called Whispersync. That was four years ago, at the launch of the Kindle reader.

By contrast, Apple introduced the iPod 10 years ago, the iPhone nearly four years ago, and the iPad almost two years ago. The iCloud service goes live this autumn.

Despite the different directions they are coming from, however, Amazon and Apple seem destined to meet in the middle. They want to offer a slick, frictionless media experience on a good-looking portable device. And one way or another, they want to make a lot of money off that.

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