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!