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Can the Kindle Fire Light Your Fire?

Let me preface this article by telling you that, while I have not personally had much face time with an Amazon Kindle Fire tablet, I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking to people who have reviewed the product. I’ve also done a fair amount of research, so I think I have a decent handle on its capabilities and shortcomings.

I also expect to be in a position to spend more time with one shortly, and I reserve the right to be wrong in some of my assumptions. But I don’t think I’m that wrong!

The long and short of it is that, except for the iPad, tablets have been failures. Some of those failures have been notable, such as the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook and Motorola Xoom. At least HP was able to move a fair amount of TouchPads, simply by almost giving them away for $99 each, while at the same time losing a bundle on each item sold.

The sole exception has been Amazon, where an unknown but apparently reasonably large number of Kindle e-book readers have been sold. Since they occupy a form factor similar to a tablet, you might put them into that category. With the Fire, Amazon has gone all the way. This 7-inch minimalist package is evidently designed to provide a much wider consumption capability, starting with e-books, and extending to videos and games. There’s even a bare bones email client; you can get better selections from Amazon’s app repository, and there’s a Web browser that sports a feature “borrowed” from Opera and, believe it or not, AOL.

In order to speed up the browser, Amazon has set up a proxy server network that caches Web content. This is meant to speed up access, particularly for the sites that are more frequently accessed by fellow Fire customers, because those are the ones most likely to be stored. Now in the old days of AOL, when they offered a mediocre home-brewed browser, they used their servers to compress images, and thus reduce the time it took for those images to appear on your computer. Unfortunately, this also meant that image quality was reduced, although you could turn the feature off if you liked.

Reviews of the Kindle Fire have been mostly middling. Even the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, notorious for understating his product criticisms, was clearly unimpressed. To him, the Fire has a sluggish, somewhat unfinished user interface. He was also clearly displeased that it lacked a built-in camera, GPS, or even the ability to access a 3G data network. It’s Wi-Fi or nothing.

Perhaps the most compelling feature is the price. At $200, Amazon appears to be taking a loss on every unit sold, hoping to make it up by selling you e-books and other content from their huge product catalog. In a sense, you are paying for a front end to a sprawling online retailer, for that’s how Amazon expects you to use it. Within these limitations, the Fire may be a success, despite the version 1.0 bugs.

The 7-inch form factor is a mixed bag. The display presents about 40% of what you see on an iPad, and even the iPad’s screen may seem small if you’re used to a standard note-book. But the Fire’s smaller size means greater portability. You can probably fit one in a coat pocket, and certainly in a purse. When it comes to reading a book, you can hold it in one hand, something you just cannot do with comfort on an iPad.

Now Steve Jobs has ragged on those smaller tablets, claiming they come across mostly as swollen smartphones, without the phone of course, and that the display area just isn’t enough to do the sort of things you can accomplish on an iPad.

Of course, the marketplace will make the ultimate decision. Obviously, the Kindle Fire doesn’t offer the breadth of features of an iPad, and Amazon’s app selection is quite small right now, although there appears to be some level of developer interest. The other question mark is the operating system. Amazon has taken Android 2.3, an OS never optimized for tablets, and heavily modified it with a distinctly different interface. Reviews also indicate that, when you get past Amazon’s book shelf styled opening screen, you run into problems with inconsistent functions and a somewhat soft text display.

I expect that Kindle fans will probably embrace the Fire, as will people who want a more traditional tablet but cannot afford the iPad’s asking price. But if the OS bugs turn off the early adopters, Amazon might have a problem. Such issues are symptomatic of a product that wasn’t fully baked before being released. No doubt, Amazon wanted to ship the Fire ahead of the holidays, to deliver the maximum amount of sales. But if customers are put off by the bugs, they are going to tell their friends, who might, in turn, cancel their orders, or never place them in the first place.

Then again, there is no reason why the iPad and the Fire can’t each succeed on their own merits. There are more than enough people out there to create lots of demand for both. Right now, it looks like the Fire, despite its shortcomings, will likely do well this year. But it’s clearly not an iPad replacement by any means.