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Amazon's Fire: A Cloud-Powered Contender

The retail giant is combining several parts of its business with its vast cloud infrastructure to deliver an impressive tablet.

The Kindle Fire tablet doesn’t quite match the aesthetics of an iPad. It doesn’t sport the same delicate curves or metallic body, for example. But most people won’t care. What’s most exciting is that it comes close to matching the iPad experience for a fraction of the price—$199 compared to $499 for the basic iPad 2—and it offers easy access to Amazon’s vast array of digital content.

Fire power: Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, revealed the Kindle Fire in New York.

Like the iPad, the Fire has a color touch screen, can play video, and runs apps. It uses Google’s Android operating system, but it’s a heavily modified version of that system, so the experience is very different from that on other Android tablets. But the most important difference is Amazon’s use of cloud technology and the content libraries it’s built up over the last few years to deliver content to the Fire.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Is there some way that we can bring all of [our] services together into a remarkable product offering that customers will love,’ ” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said at a press conference today in New York. “The answer is ‘yes.’ ”

The new device weighs 14.6 ounces and has a seven-inch screen; it’s smaller than the iPad and comfortable to hold in one hand, and its touch screen is responsive. The Web browser, called Silk, which Amazon developed from scratch, loads Web pages at lightning speed even on a clogged Wi-Fi network, thanks to some clever cloud-caching technology. Judging by demonstrations at the launch event, it offers a smooth experience for watching videos, listening to music, reading books, and playing games.

In some ways, Bezos has beaten Apple at its own game by offering such a simple user experience. Kindle Fire has eight gigabytes of storage, but it’s designed so that users don’t have to worry about whether they’re filling up available space. “All of the content on this device is backed up in the cloud so that you can delete things whenever you want,” Bezos said.

In contrast, Apple’s iTunes service is still focused on downloading content to devices rather than streaming, and Apple’s cloud offering, announced earlier this year, is comparatively limited. 

During the presentation, Bezos stood in front of an image of Apple’s white USB cord, which is used to synchronize the data on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod with a user’s computer. He sneered, “Syncing should be done invisibly, wirelessly, and in the background, and it should actually work.”

Bezos added that the Kindle Fire will use the same Whispersync technology that Amazon uses to synchronize books on older Kindles to deliver other types of content. Amazon’s vast stockpile of downloadable content, including e-books, music, movies, and, most recently, apps, could present the biggest draw for many customers.

A Forrester report published in August predicted that Amazon would be Apple’s main rival in tablet computing. It predicted that Amazon could sell 3 million to 5 million tablets in the fourth quarter alone. Apple has, so far, sold around 29 million iPads. Speaking after Wednesday’s announcement, Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, lead author of the report, said, “Amazon is delivering what we expected, but at an even better price.”

The Kindle Fire’s impressive new Web browser also taps into Amazon’s cloud platform. Silk uses this cloud infrastructure to cache Web data, significantly speeding up the time it takes to load pages on mobile devices.

Bezos said he asked himself if there was a way Amazon could use the computational horsepower of Amazon Elastic Cloud Compute to accelerate mobile Web browsing. “The answer is yes,” he said.

“The browser was a surprise,” Rotman Epps added. “It’s pretty techy, but the benefit for the user is a really fast experience.”

Amazon’s sophisticated cloud strategy is, however, also a powerful example of “vendor lock-in.” Both Amazon’s cloud backup and Whispersync service only work for content that users buy from Amazon—a compelling incentive for customer loyalty.

The Kindle Fire does lack some of the iPad’s features. It has no camera, which means no videoconferencing. It also lacks support for 3G.

The Android Market also lacks the cache of Apple’s App Store. But Bezos didn’t seem worried about these missing pieces. By the end of the launch event, he had some smug digs at those who might have doubted him: “We’re making many millions of these, but I still suggest you preorder today if you want to be sure.”

The first units will ship November 15.

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