The Kindle Fire vs. the Apple iPad isn’t really a vs.

Starting this week, customers start receiving the new 7″ touch-screen Android device from Amazon called the Kindle Fire.

As with anything that suggests a company could challenge Apple in a market it dominates, I predict you will be subjected to lots and lots of articles and reviews and blog posts and TV coverage about how the Kindle Fire is the first serious threat to the Apple iPad.

A savvy exception to my prediction is this review at Engadget that actually reviews the Kindle Fire, itself, without hanging the entire review on how it’s different from the iPad. I say, savvy because one day we will look back and be amused that we ever considered the two devices  competition for anything other than who could garner the most hype, or pump out the most devices.

In reality, the iPad and Kindle Fire are as different as, okay, let me do some metaphor puns, apples and oranges or fire and water.

In the future, individuals will own dozens of different touch-screen devices that will be in all sizes and shapes — some with brands, some with none. They’ll be embedded in walls and car dashboards and could even replace light switches or doorbells. Others will take up entire walls like something out of Farenheit 451. (Science fiction makes predicting this stuff so easy.)

The notion that touch screen computing devices come in two brands or two operating systems will seem quaint and innocent in the not-too-distant future. But for today, I’ll skip the future and focus on why the Kindle and iPad are as different as Apple and Amazon — two companies with which I have deep, long relationships as both a retail and business customer.

A good place to start understanding the difference in the two devices (and two companies) is this Wired magazine article by Steven Levy. In it, he writes a paragraph that can serve as the Cliff Notes version of everything you need to know:

“While users of the iPad and the Fire will engage in many of the same activities—watching movies, reading books, playingAngry Birds—the philosophy behind the two tablets could not be more different. Apple is fundamentally a hardware company—91 percent of its revenue comes from sales of its coveted machines, compared to just 6 percent from iTunes. The iPad’s design, marketing, and product launches all emphasize the special character of the device itself, which the company views as a successor to the PC—complete with video-chat capabilities and word-processing software. Amazon, on the other hand, is a content-focused company—almost half of its revenue comes from sales of media like books, music, TV shows, and movies—and the fire-sale-priced Fire is designed to be primarily a passport to the large amount of that content that’s available digitally. The gadget comes preloaded with customers’ Amazon account information, and anyone who signs up for Amazon Prime, the company’s $79-a-year shipping service, will be able to access more than 12,000 (and counting) movies and TV shows on the Fire at no extra charge.”

For the 12 people who read this blog, that paragraph may sound familiar. It is a much more succinct way of saying what I wrote when the Amazon Kindle Fire was first announced.

If you are the one reader of this blog who is the Kindle-smarty named Aaron Pressman, you will know everything I’m about to say is an exercise in connecting the dots that he and I have played with for the past several years.

So, with the risk of being too obvious to some, and too redundant to others, here are some issues I’d like to throw out there before you get too burnt out from the Fire stuff you’ll be hearing about all week.

  • There is less “versus” than portrayed: You know how you can write with a pencil or a pen? Do you think of them as being competitors? Do you know how there are cars and there are pickup trucks? Do you think of them as being competitors? You see where I’m heading? If you own a pickup truck and car, you can get from Point A to Point B in either. After your basic transportation needs are met, you start deciding between pickup trucks and cars based on an easily (easy, because we’ve had a century of experience to figure these things out) determined set of personal needs and preferences.
  • The iPad is a creation device, the Kindle Fire is a consumption device: For those of you just joining this party, that is a joke. All the giant content companies of the world convinced one another that people would purchase iPads primarily to “consume” (what people who run media companies call “watching,” “reading,” and “listening”) content (what people who run media companies call “movies and video,” “books and magazines,” and “music”), much of which would be produced by giant content companies. It took about a day for that misperception of the iPad to sink in to users of the device. However, it took  months for content companies to comprehend that reading magazines would not be in the top few hundred things people do with iPads.  The Kindle, however, is going to be, if Amazon is going to make any money on it, very much a content consumption device. Indeed, it’s going to be a vending machine — and I’m referring to a long-ago metaphor that some early web pioneers used to dream about.
  • The Kindle Fire costs $199, but Amazon Prime costs $79 a year: Back in the day, I could justify paying $79 per year for Amazon Prime for one thing only: My shipping costs from Amazon were more than $79. In an era when my shipping costs are harder to justify (because all those books I used to purchase to be shipped are downloaded digitally), my Prime membership needed to re-focus its value. The $200 loss-leader pricing of the Kindle Fire is all about keeping me as a Prime customer. I feel certain that the bean-counters at Amazon can tell you the precise lifetime value of a customer who pays $79 a year for the privilege of being a customer vs. the value of those who don’t and easily justify going door to door handing out Kindle Fires for free.
  • Audible.com: Amazon owns Audible.com. About four years ago, I wrote an open-letter post to Jeff Bezos that pointed out how, of all the things in the book publishing business that are screwed up, audio books have to be the worst. Amazon is the only power that can fix it. So far, they haven’t. Having millions of people owning a Kindle Fire could finally provide Amazon with the leverage to change the market dynamics of a market that makes even less economic sense that the strange economics of the printed-book market.
  • IMDB.com: Amazon owns IMDB.com. It’s a wiki. It could become the most incredible front door to a video service, ever. Better than Netflix. Better than iTunes. Did I mention it’s a wiki? I would love Amazon to display how a wiki-model resource can be the front door to consumer-focused ecommerce. That’s something I’d really, really like.
  • Business use prediction:If you’re thinking about using a touch screen device as a business tool, say, for making presentations or taking notes with a wireless keypad, you’ll decide that an iPad is the device for you. If you love your Kindle and mainly read books and watch movies (on a 7″ screen), go for the Fire.

Bottomline: Despite the success of the iTunes music store and the Apple Stores in malls, the ethos of Apple is all about creating elegant hardware and software and user experiences. Despite the success of Amazon Web Services and the Kindle eBook reader, the ethos of Amazon is all about low-cost retailing, not creating consumer electronics. Both companies are great. But they are different.

Vive la difference!

  • Becky McCray

    I agree with the idea that we’ll all end up with a lot more devices in a lot more shapes and sizes, rather than one single device that does “everything.” 

    But I can’t resist sharing this. If you search “iPad” today on Google, the first result is an ad from Amazon: 
    Compare to Kindle Fire | amazon.comwww.amazon.com/tablet-comparisonamazon.com is rated  6,337 reviewsKindle Fire has the same premium content, at a non-premium price.

  • Sure, Amazon wants to present a side-by-side comparison (http://re-x.me/firevipad) of the two. But those hundreds of millions of $s that Apple has used to support the iPad by carpet-bombing ads across every type of TV programming for the past 18 months makes me think that lots of consumers don’t search the word iPad on Google before deciding what they want. (PS: I’m looking forward to having both an iPad and a Fire, but as you know, Becky, I’m a hopeless geek in this dept.)

  • So my Kindle Fire is awaiting my return home from work today and I have yet to lay eyes (or fingers) upon it but I’ll offer some comments based on the theory of it. I don’t refer to Rex as an “Internet smarty” for nothing as his observations above attest. I also generally don’t believe in the “Gadget X will kill gadget Y” formulation – it tends to be more misleading than insightful.

    With all those caveats aside, I think that some/lots of the people who get iPads are not very interested in using them as laptop replacements, content creation devices or microwave ovens. That’s especially true I think in homes like ours with more than one tablet.  It’s like buying a pickup truck when you don’t really need it because it seems cooler than a car. Now comes Amazon offerings a pick up truck-lite that costs less. It’s not intended for people who need the whole truck.

    Also, there is the issue of Moore’s law and its various gadget-related corollaries. Over time, the cheaper tablets will close the feature and performance gap with the more expensive tablets and a “good enough” stage could be reached. On the other hand, Apple has been particularly good at side-stepping the “good enough” stage in PCs and laptops with great design, innovative features etc.

    Finally, while I’m sure it is true that the Fire makes it easy to buy stuff from Amazon, I feel like the point is overdone. You can put any of your own content onto the Fire more easily than onto an iPad with a simple drag and drop. And you can run a host of competing video and music services via apps. Ebooks are likely an exception, of course. Apple’s iTunes and iTunes app on the iPad make it super easy to buy stuff from Apple, too. 

    I do find it fascinating that you can use the two companies’ cloud music services to sync each other’s music. That is, I could buy all my music from the Amazon MP3 store and Apple’s new matching service will propagate it to all my iOS devices. Or I can buy all my music from iTunes and use Amazon’s cloud music uploader to get it on all my non-Apple devices. That kind of cross-platform utility is very good for consumers and competition though probably not what the companies intended.

  • I didn’t call you a Kindle-smarty for nothing, either. This is sort of a continuation of our discussion from the very first day the Kindle was announced. You’ve been more right than me, also. I will have a Fire within 24 hours, so I’m sure this discussion will continue.

    P.S. I’ve purchased all my music from Amazon since the day they started selling MP3s.