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Last year, the Kindle Fire was–pun egregiously intended–the hottest product around. I even listed the “Not-iPads” (read: the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet) as my #1 product of 2011, right after the Lytro camera.

Silly me, it would seem–if analysts are to be believed. Far from making the massive dent in the iPad market that many had predicted, the Kindle Fire “fizzled” in Q1, per ABI research. Though the Kindle Fire has surged to the number-two spot in the tablet space following the flurry of holiday excitement, it ultimately ceded that position to Samsung, which shipped 1.1 million units in the first quarter.

Apple’s dominance here remains striking. The iPad had 65% of the shipments in Q1, says ABI. It shipped 11.8 million iPads in the first quarter. “A pattern similar to smartphones is also occurring in tablets,” said Jeff Orr, one of ABI’s analysts. “Apple and Samsung have demonstrated staying power while other tablet vendors ebb and flow like the tide.” Strikingly, only Lenovo and RIM (!) bucked the downward trend many vendors saw this quarter.

Truthfully, though, if I were an investor, I don’t know that I would put too much stock in these numbers. Despite my weakness for the dramatic, metaphor-riddled headline, the Kindle Fire hasn’t quite fizzled to “embers” levels–or if it has for a time, there’s nothing to say that it can’t ride back in a delayed blaze of glory. One quarter is probably too short a time to spot definitive trends, in a market so new. Furthermore, another analyst points out that “shipments” are not the same thing as “sales.”  

“This current firestorm around the Kindle Fire numbers is a perfect example of how mistaking shipments for sales leads the market to incorrect and faulty conclusions about trends and opportunities,” writes NPD analyst Stephen Baker.

I’ll go further: I think that to compare the Kindle Fire to the iPad at all is something of an apples-and-oranges comparison (or crabapples-and-apples comparison, perhaps). The real competition to watch is between the Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble’s Nook Tablet, newly flush with Microsoft cash. This is a battle over the future of books, the fate of retail, and the importance of tablets as a portal to inventory. It’s wildly important, and to a certain extent it’s an independent variable in the tablet wars. To compare the Fire to the iPad, or to Samsung’s tablet offerings, is to miss the real Fire-y horse race we should be keeping our eye on: the Kindle versus the Nook.

And until we see what B&N’s next step is, this is a race that will have to remain a tad fuzzy in the spyglass for now, no matter what the analysts say.

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