Technology mavens and Wall Street suits were joined in their excitement at the end of September, when Amazon.com (AMZN) pulled back the curtain on its first tablet computer: the Kindle Fire. Priced at a dirt cheap $199, many pundits are already hailing this device as the first true competitor to Apple's (AAPL) iPad, which has maintained a stranglehold on the tablet market since its release last year. Investors are certainly bullish: Amazon was up over 2% the day of the unveiling, versus a 1.4% drop for the SPDR Select Technology Fund (XLK).
However, I have my reservations about whether or not the Fire can truly challenge the iPad. It has nothing to do with the Fire's reduced memory, lack of a camera and microphone, or smaller universe of apps. It's the screen size that concerns me: the Fire will ship with a 7" display, and honestly, I don't think that's going to cut it.
A 7" tablet is a device that's stuck halfway between the iPad and a smart phone, without the advantages of either. Apple conducted extensive market research to figure out the ideal size for a tablet before unleashing the iPad, and Steve Jobs famously declared that all 7" tablets would be dead on arrival. But wait: the original Kindle is only 6", and so is Barnes & Noble's (BKS) Nook... and both have been pretty successful products, haven't they?
This is true, but the difference between the Fire and single-purpose ebook readers is that content for the latter is, for the most part, optimized for the device. Even when it's not, the pages of text in an ebook file are clean, so you can easily maximize their size on your screen and leverage the limited display to its full potential.
The Fire needs to tackle an entirely different challenge: it has to display non-optimized content like web pages. Most websites are designed to be viewed on a PC, which makes them ill-suited for a downsizing. Let's look at this page for instance: other than the article text, what do you see? Ads, links to other SA articles, information about the author... the actual space that the most relevant content, the article itself, takes up is just a fraction of the whole.
Shrink it down even more, and it very quickly becomes almost impossible to read what you came here to read. Even with the iPad's 9.7" screen, I often have to use the zoom tool when I come across a page that has more clutter than normal. Seven inches just doesn't offer enough real estate for portable web browsing.
There are ways around this problem, so it's not all doom and gloom just yet. For instance, iOS 5 is shipping with a feature that allows the user to strip away all the filler from the web page they're viewing and zero in on the main content. Such technology would be even more beneficial to a smaller device like the Fire, and would be a tremendous asset in helping it to overcome its display limitations. It remains to be seen if Amazon's tablet will ship with such a solution.
These are all just preliminary predictions though, and I could easily be wrong. I can't deny that the Fire commands an enormous advantage with its very attractive price point, and it may very well become the runaway hit that everyone is expecting. The truth is, none of us can really judge until we get our hands on one of these gizmos and give it a test drive.
No one really expects Apple to maintain its ridiculous share of the tablet market forever, but past contenders like Hewlett Packard (HPQ) and Research in Motion (RIMM) haven't seen much success in their attempts to dethrone the Cupertino fruit company. Will Amazon succeed where others have failed? Maybe, but I have my doubts. Even if the Kindle Fire comes up short, there's no dearth of other tech titans eager to fight Apple for a slice of its pie, with challengers such as Nokia (NOK) and Microsoft (MSFT) leading the vanguard. I fully expect the next year to have many surprises in store for industry watchers and investors alike.
Also, that's what she said.
Disclosure: I am long AAPL.