Amazon The Technology Company

Amazon continued to ease their way into becoming a electronics company with their most recent Kindle announcements. The new devices (Kindle paperwhite, Kindle Fire HD 7″ , Kindle Fire HD 8.9″, and Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ with 4G LTE) continue to focus on portable access to Amazon content. What was absent was the rumoured phone, but given the current pace of change at Amazon, this isn’t surprising.  There were some interesting technology/usage pieces from today’s announcement, but there is also a bigger, and more intriguing element, to the whole thing.

E-Paper Finally Gets Bright

The Kindle paperwhite (how soon before someone calls it the “paperweight”?) addresses one weakness in the traditional e-paper reader from Amazon, as well as fixes a minor nit. The front-lit display, using what appears to be some pretty trick engineering with fibreoptics, now means that the “you can’t use the Kindle easily in the dark” argument goes away. What is more impressive is that, even with the light on continuously, Amazon claims the battery will last up to 8 weeks. That’s pretty impressive.

The one “nit” they repaired is that the screen is now white, instead of a cross between cream and grey. It wasn’t a big deal, particularly since most paperbacks haven’t had truly white pages in a very long time (and most don’t stay all that white over time anyways). Having an image that is truly black on white will certainly look better. I fully expect some will claim this will make it “easier to read”, although there is no evidence one way or another that supports assertions that e-paper is easier on the eyes in the first place, let alone a higher-contrast version. Anecdotal evidence doesn’t count. Get what you feel most comfortable with, but don’t try to apply “science” when none exists.

The device is also thinner than the Kindle Touch (9.8mm vs. the Touch’s 10.1mm). It’s not a huge change, but one that will still be noticeable, particularly if you have them side-by-side. The bezel also looks much thinner. The device continues to improve in both design and utility.

Multiple Profiles on Kindle Fire

Most of the hardware on the new Fire HD is interesting, but frankly not that surprising. The big thing that people will notice is the ability to set up different user profiles on the device. There has been some discussion about whether tablets are more like phones (a one-on-one personal device) or more like a home PC (with multiple users). Like the PC, the requirement for this varies. In my household, iPads are basically personal devices: everyone who wants to use one has their own. Only our youngest shares my wife’s iPad, and only under some degree of supervision (even if it is more surreptitious that overt). There are plenty of families where their tablet is a shared device, essentially an appliance for everyone. Having multiple profiles is a very good idea.

Reading Between The Lines

The live blogs I followed during the announcement focused largely on the features (which is unsurprising) but made little or no comment, even minor, on some of the little things that Bezos said. Consider that, for the paperwhite, they have been working on the screen technology for 4 years. The improved screen on the Kindle Fire, which has reduced glare and better viewing angles, is also a product of Amazon research. It sounds like that this was research that wasn’t outsourced to someone else. It sounds very much like Amazon did this work themselves.

Bezos also mentioned that they did the work on antenna design, and they did a bunch of engineering on some of the radios in the Kindle Fire HD. Again, this sounds like the work of in-house Amazon engineers, and not the result of some 3rd-party being asked to do the work.

If this is true, and Amazon really is doing most or all of their own hardware engineering, then that reinforces a suspicion I had earlier: Amazon is working to become a technology company. Okay, sure, Amazon is already a “technology company” in that they have a lot of talent in building reliable and scalable systems for inventory and catalog management, order processing and business back-office functions. But what appears to be happening is that Amazon is transforming themselves into an end-user technology product company, or to put it more colloquially, an electronics company.

Amazon can try to experiment with this direction because they have a steady and growing revenue base for their distribution capabilities, from their content and from their other services. As always, Amazon’s motivation to keep control of the low end of the devices accessing their services ensures that there is a certain minimum standard available in terms of quality and experience. The Fire HD moves up the ladder, and takes on the “traditional” products like iPad, but retaining its focus on being a portal to Amazon content. Unlike the original Fire announcement, this one made no mention of things you could do outside the Amazon ecosystem. That’s an important distinction, and one that some may not pick up on.

Not A Game Changer, But A Game Influencer

Inevitably, there will be some that will try to position the Kindle Fire HD, both the “normal” and 4G LTE version, as “game changers”. Some will breathlessly claim that this will unseat the iPad from tablet dominance, particularly the $50/year LTE plan for data and storage. That is cheap, but also bear in mind that 250MB of data isn’t exactly a lot these days. Average (non-technnical) people I know with mobile plans use more than that in a month at times. That sort of thing isn’t even a shot at Apple or Samsung, it is a shot at the carriers.

The price-point is intriguing, and Bezos made it clear they are selling these things at cost. Amazon’s focus continues to remain the content. And while there is some level of enterprise integration, clearly Amazon isn’t focused on working with the enterprise, at least not yet. Amazon remains laser-focused on one thing: moving and selling content.

That focus means that the device is also equally focused on that task, even though it can certainly used for a broader set of functions. Also keep in mind that any “technological superiority” is temporary. They will be eclipsed on the spec sheet by something better. And I need to reinforce what I’ve said before: consumer don’t buy technical specs. The strength of the device is the ecosystem, but the Fire isn’t the only way into the more useful parts of Amazon’s world.

What the Fire HD is, though, is a “game influencer”. The specs nearly meet, and occasionally exceed, the current iPad. It still lacks the industrial design that Apple has shown, but as we have seen with the traditional Kindle, Amazon has been taking their time on the design. Their goal is to “get it out, and get people consuming content”. Amazon is still not at the point where industrial design is a key success factor for their devices, at least not for the Fire. It has started to matter more and more for the traditional readers, and they have continued to address it on each successive generation of the device. I fully expect them to do the same on the Fire HD as it matures, and as the appeal broadens.

But the influence comes with the ability to sell at a lower price point, capturing a segment of buyers that Apple has been reluctant to go after. The upgraded device offers those who want a tablet, but don’t want an iPad, an option that has a fairly healthy ecosystem to support it. It shows just how low the bar can go and still result in a decent product. But it also continues to reinforce the fact that content, not technology, is what makes a tablet useful. Too many Android manufacturers, and Android supporters, go on at length about the “superior technology”, but completely overlook the fact that the device’s utility comes from the content, not the processor speed.

The Fire will have some influence on the technology side. Expect further focus by others on things like screen glare, viewing angles, network connectivity and shared-use environments. The Fire should sell in enough volume to influence others to stop obsessing just about processor speed or graphics capabilities, and start to look at those things that people can see, touch and measure.

Will Be A Success

Amazon will sell a lot of Fire HD’s. There is no question on that. What the Fire HD is unlikely to do is unseat the iPad. Apple certainly shouldn’t ignore the Fire. Of all of the other tablets, it is one that has a reasonably strong ecosystem, although the app catalog is still a bit weak at the moment. It is the ecosystem that sells tablets and smartphones. Bezos acknowledged that when discussing the tablet market (that a tablet isn’t a gadget, it’s a service).

Today’s announcement continues Amazon’s slowly “filling in the gaps” in the technology gaps between their content and available hardware. I’m not surprised they didn’t announce a phone, because that is a huge leap. The Fire announcement was largely an incremental, but still meaningful, change from the first Fire. Even the first Fire wasn’t exactly a “jump with both feet into the deep end” move. Amazon has been approaching the hardware market in small steps, not giant leaps. Will a phone appear next year? Possibly. It wouldn’t be out of the question. But for now, Amazon will focus on tablets of various forms to shore up access to their content, and give people options for getting into the Amazon world.