Amazon just pulled the covers off its much-anticipated Android tablet, a 7-inch multitouch device with an Android core and a “dual-core” processor. In the context of a croweded device market, it sounds a lot like a slightly prettier tablet PC. Except it’s not quite. Amazon’s carved away almost everything unnecessary, so it’ll work well at delivering the content Amazon wants to push at you from its cloud servers and sell at an impressively low price. Basically it does exactly what it says on the tin, no more.
Here’s what we know about the Fire: It’s small, light (just 14.6 ounces), flat, and has an IPS screen and a look and feel that’s reminiscent of an iPhone 3GS. Inside a mobile processor of unknown lineage purrs away at an undisclosed speed, although Amazon felt the need to tell us it’s a “dual core” one. The screen has 169 pixels per inch, with a resolution of 1024 by 600 pixels, and Amazon is also bold enough to say the IPS tech that drives it is “similar technology to that used on the iPad,” because Apple’s made a big thig about its choice of screen tech in the past. It’s got 8GB of on-board storage, good for “80 apps, plus either 10 movies or 800 songs or 6,000 books,” but its connection to Amazon’s cloud content feed means the internal storage size isn’t really an issue.
The battery is good for eight hours of “continuous reading” or one work or college day, or 7.5 hours of video “with wireless off,” and Amazon notes the battery performance will vary with use, such as browsing the web. It has no 3G, but does have a Wi-Fi card that supports up to 802.11N networks, either public or private, but can’t do ad-hoc or peer-to-peer wireless connections. And in terms of connecting to a computer, there are zero system requirements “because it’s wireless and doesn’t require a computer” (a slightly irrelevant dig at Apple’s need to tether iDevices to a computer).
All of these specs are very carefully chosen, and they align extremely well with some pre-analysis we did weeks before today’s news. The rumor is that Amazon worked closely with the same supplier, ODM Quanta, that designed the RIM PlayBook to pare down the hardware to get the Fire beneath its magical $200 price point. That’s why there’s no microphone, no camera, no expensive 3G card (which would also sap battery life and ad UI complexity), just 8GB of internal storage–because flash RAM is one of the more expensive components of any device like this–and what’s rumored to be an older, slower, and thus cheaper mobile CPU inside. These tight requirements practically forced Amazon to strip Android down to its bare core, and bury it deeply inside an Amazon proprietary UI lest the device suffer the same criticisms of sluggishness and unreliable performance that are aimed at many very similar existing 7-inch Android tablets.
This is to the user’s benefit of course, because as a result Amazon has attained the same kind of slick performance that comes from a controlled, polished, optimized hardware-software synergy that Apple manages in the iPhone and iPad. It’s also to Amazon’s benefit, because this tightly managed UI really constrains you to only supping content directly from Amazon’s pipelines, be it for music, video, apps or even web browsing (which happens partly on Amazon’s cloud computers thanks to the Opera-like Silk browser, mainly because it has to work like this on the limited hardware inside the Fire).
And this optimization is the Fire’s strength: A tight system that borrows liberally from Apple’s thinking and design-engineering expertise, at a market-shattering $200 price point that’ll let Amazon make much more money by streaming books and music to buyers over the coming years. But it’s also, as with any highly constrained system, the Fire’s weakness: It’s no full-featured tablet, and if you’re not interested in being bought into Amazon’s ecosystem it’s not much use to you. Both points taken together mean that these devices will sell by the ton, and challenge existing entry-level Android devices from every other maker, but that it’s got a complex future ahead of it in a very dynamic market.