This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
by Larry Magid
A story at TabTimes.com has me wondering if Apple’s market dominance in tablets might soon be over. The article, which quoted Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney, predicted that Amazon will ship 5 million Kindle Fires in the fourth economic quarter “before reaching 12 million units in 2012 and 20 million units in 2013.”
If that happens, Amazon will have 15 percent of the market, making it the No. 2 tablet vendor. By several analyst estimates, Apple currently has about 75 percent of the tablet market.
The Kindle Fire is no iPad killer. But at less than half the price, it’s definitely an iPad wounder. I own an iPad and a Kindle Fire and when it comes to what I do most with the devices, I don’t have a strong preference between the two.
True, the iPad 2 has a larger screen, a camera, a more intuitive user interface, longer battery life and a much better design than the Kindle Fire. But as much as I appreciate those factors, I mostly use tablets to consume content. And when I’m deep into reading a book or watching a movie, I’m not thinking about the device’s industrial design — I’m focused on what I’m consuming.
It’s kind of like comparing a glossy magazine to a newspaper. Sure, a glossy magazine is often prettier and feels better in the hand, but I’d much rather read an interesting article on newsprint than a boring one on glossy paper.
And like the paper that newspapers and magazines are printed on, the Kindle Fire isn’t really the product — it’s the delivery vehicle. iSupply estimates that the materials used to make the Kindle cost slightly more than its retail price. Amazon hopes to make its money on books, video, other content and even the sale of physical goods.
I’m sure Amazon could have done a better job in its design of the Kindle Fire. It certainly could have made it larger, with a beefier battery — Amazon says it runs 7.5 hours for reading or 8 hours for video with Wi-Fi turned off, compared to 10 hours on an iPad with Wi-Fi on. And there’s no question that Amazon could have created a less boxy and boring design. But the Kindle Fire’s $199 price tag makes it affordable for many people. I could have borrowed an evaluation unit from Amazon as I did from Apple when the iPad came out, but at $199 with free shipping, I just bought one, figuring that if I don’t use it, I could give it to a family member.
But sorry, family, I’m not planning to give away my Kindle Fire because I find myself using it almost as often as my iPad 2. If I feel like reading or watching a movie at home, I’m likely to grab the iPad or the MacBook. But if I’m headed to the gym or going out for coffee, I’m more likely to grab the Kindle Fire because it fits into my pocket. It’s bit of a stretch, but I can get the device into the front pocket of most of my pants and, of course, it can easily be slipped into a backpack.
I do plan to bring the Kindle Fire with me next time I get on a plane. I never leave home without a laptop, so a tablet is an extra device that I use to read or watch video. But the last time I got on a plane, I left the iPad at home because it just wasn’t worth the extra weight and bulk. At 14.6 ounces, the Kindle Fire is only 7 ounces lighter than the iPad 2. But when you travel, every ounce counts, which is why I carry a 2.38-pound, 11-inch MacBook Air instead of the more ample 13-inch model that weighs another 9 ounces.
The Kindle Fire is also priced and sized better for kids. Although I don’t want to see Amazon dominate the school textbook market, I do look forward to the day when kids can carry around a small electronic device instead of a backpack stuffed with 40 pounds of books. Devices like the Kindle Fire are not only lighter; they have the potential of making the books cheaper. In fact, they even have the potential of disrupting the publishing industry, making it more practical for teachers to develop their own materials by eliminating the cost of publishing, printing and distribution and facilitating the use of video and other media.
Even the $199 Kindle Fire is too expensive for widespread use in schools, but it’s a step in the right direction. India’s Education Ministry is said to be developing a $50 Internet-ready tablet, and when I was in Kenya in September, I was shown a $60 Chinese Android tablet that’s being considered for use in their schools.