Amazon lights a fire, Apple ices the cake

September 29, 2011
That was the week that was.

I can imagine saying that in years to come about the eight days that began on Wednesday with Amazon’s paradigm-busting entry into the tablet business, its deeper walk into the cheaper e-ink e-reader woods with less expensive Kindles, bookended next Wednesday by Apple’s latest iPhone(s) reveal.

Both unveilings have lots to do with “everywhere” consumption, and both have aspects of evolution. But a counter-revolution began this week, and we’ll be talking about for years to come.

Dare I say it: Amazon’s $199 “Fire” tablet may not make us forget Apple’s tablet, but it could very well be the first credible answer to the question: “Why wouldn’t I buy an iPad?”

It helps that this device comes from a very credible source. Amazon pretty much invented the e-book business. Before that, it sold lots of print books (still does). But the vision and seeming conflict that didn’t deter founder and CEO Jeff Bezos from a business then dominated by big box stores, and especially Barnes and Noble, is the same drive that has him now taking on Apple in its strongest suit.

Let’s face it. When you introduce a new tablet there is really only one horseman you are worried about. No offense HP, Samsung, Research in Motion, etc. But that’s the reality of it. The comparison is inevitable, and the only one a consumer cares about.

HP demonstrated that price can matter, when it decided to give up on $500 tablets — the same price point as the entry-level iPad — and emptied the shelves at $100.

Enter Amazon, with a $200 tablet that — no surprises here — plugs you into their eco-system just as well as Apple does (or aspires to) and Google accomplishes with Android and its hardware partners. So, Amazon Prime customers, who are already one-click, free-two-day-shipping junkies (I speak from personal experience) can stream the somewhat paltry but respectable library of media Amazon offers.

Tablets are a big part of the future. While predictions that tablets would kill e-readers turned out to be completely wrong, isn’t it a bit risky to give your own customers a reason not to buy what is probably still the single-most popular e-reader on the planet?

Not to worry, Bezos says. “They’re going to buy both,” he told Wired‘s Steven Levy in a pre-launch interview.

Bezos is probably right enough. I was curmudgeonly about the whole device proliferation thing. Not only are two mobile devices the limit — but appliances, like things which only let you read books, are anathema.

After writing that e-reading wasn’t here yet, and reviewing both a Nook and a Kobo, I discovered that e-readers do actually disappear and are so perfectly designed for the single task they perform that, yes, you might want one as well as a tablet and a smartphone. There is actually no better way to read a book. E-ink offer a superior all-around experience than the relevant alternatives, and by that I also mean print media. (Full disclosure: I own a Nook Touch, purchased at full retail, and my main quibble with the Kindle was the hardware keyboard, which with the latest crop is now gone.)

My e-reader reviews always harped on the price. As an appliance, I argued, one would have to cost something in the neighborhood of $50 for it to be a no brainer, for every student and grandmother and dentist’s office to buy in. Bezos isn’t going that low, but at $80 there should be considerable new interest from the price conscious consumer or tech timid.

And what of the new latest iPhone? Apple isn’t even being coy about the subject of their October event this year. But, as usual, the details are skimpy and unconfirmed. Thin would appear to be in, just at the iPad 2 slimmed down. Al Gore, an Apple board member, allowed as there would be more than one new iPhone. There is talk of an even larger display and a different shaped home button. We still don’t know Apple’s commitment to 4G, which is rolling out slowly.

But the big question is whether Apple’s event, hosted this year for the first time by new CEO Tim Cook, will suck all the air out of the room, the way Apple iPhone and iPad events always do. Or whether, as it seems very likely right now, that we’ll still be talking about Amazon having the most exciting story in a while in hardware.

Photos, top to bottom: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos holds up the new Kindle Touch at a news conference during the launch of Amazon’s new tablets in New York September 28, 2011. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton; Hans-Henrik Duessel from Svendborg, Denmark, displays his old Apple Macintosh Classic computer from 1990 beside his newly purchased Apple iPad after being among the first to purchase the new device during an iPad launch event at the Apple retail store in Hamburg May 28, 2010. REUTERS/Christian Charisius

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