Great artists steal, tablet edition

December 2, 2011

By Aaron Presssman
The opinions expressed are his own.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso via 1994 Steve Jobs

Amazon’s new Kindle Fire tablet seems like the anti-iPad to many. With its chunky design, smaller low resolution screen and occasionally stuttering software interface, the Fire has been blasted by some of the iPad’s biggest fans. And they’ve predicted it too will end up on the growing trash heap of previous iPad competitors that arrived with high expectations only to be found selling on Woot for 75 percent off six months later.

But a lot of people seem to have missed that while this latest creation from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos does not copy the iPad, it flat out steals more than a few of Steve Jobs best ideas. And those pilfered ideas will — pardon the pun — ignite sales of the Fire well past the ranks of the earlier crash and burn crowd and their slavish copies of the iPad’s look and feel.

With a price less than half that of the iPad, the Fire doesn’t have to do everything the iPad can do. Instead, it does 80 percent of what people actually do with their iPads – watch video, surf the web, check Facebook, play games – in a way that passes the test of “good enough.” It’s Amazon’s Honda Accord to Apple’s BMW 5-series sedan.

The most important concept swiped from Apple is the wide ranging and easily accessed ecosystem of content for Fire users.

Via its iTunes Store, Apple has long offered the most straightforward and well-stocked storefront of digital delights. From any iPad, it’s one simple click to get to the iTunes store and another click or two to buy music, movies, books, TV shows and more.

Back in the 1990s, Amazon made its name on the one-click buy buttons at its website for physical goods. Now it’s borrowing the concept for its digital video, book and music stores on the Fire. Amazon’s prior relationships with studios and publishers helped stock the Fire’s virtual shelves with plenty of goodies. And like Apple, Amazon used its prior selling relationships (including all important payment information) with Fire buyers to enable one-click buying on the tablet right out of the box.

Until just recently, Google lacked the requisite relationships to offer a well stocked digital content store. Even today, Google’s tiny video outlet pales in comparison to Amazon and Apple’s greater selection. Its just opened music store included only three of the four major labels, disappointing fans of Bruno Mars, Linkin Park and other Warner Music Group acts.

That has forced prior tablet competitors to try to strike their own one-off deals for content. Typically, they ended up a confusing mess, requiring customers to create yet another authorized payment account and sold only a fraction of the iTunes store’s catalog. Not exactly a recipe for success.

Amazon also stole the Apple model of running a tightly controlled app store. Apps aren’t the primary focus of the first-gen Fire, though they’ll likely become more important over time as the device closes the performance gap with higher end tablets. But Amazon is touting the Fire’s ability to run many popular Android apps – from Angry Birds to Zillow Real Estate — via its curated, controlled download store (full disclosure: the Thomson Reuters News app is also there). Although it’s a long way from Google’s free-wheeling, no-pre-approval-needed app market.

The store carries only a fraction, maybe 5 percent, of the apps in Google’s store but Amazon doesn’t stand still. The Kindle e-reader hardware has been updated four times and extended to a larger screen  version while the ebookstore expanded by a factor of 10 in the past four years. A larger screen version of the Fire is rumored to be on the way in 2012. And the nature of computing markets, where Moore’s law and its corollaries relentlessly drive down costs, will reduce the Fire’s performance gap and allow it to run more apps over time.

Another smart move following Apple’s lead was to allow apps from some content competitors on the Fire platform. Apple doesn’t allow competing music or video download stores on the iPad, but subscription-based services like Netflix, Hulu and Pandora are welcome. That makes the iPad ecosystem more valuable to customers without much threat to the iTunes store.

Amazon’s app store for the Fire includes many of the same services — like Netflix, Hulu and Pandora. That’s despite the early analysis that said the Fire would simply be a means to sell more of Amazon’s own digital content. As the Fire becomes more popular, expect more companies to get their apps approved. (Personally, I’m hoping for HBO Go and Spotify).

Finally, Amazon stole a page from Apple’s emotion-laden marketing playbook. The first television ads for the Fire don’t focus on the tablet’s many features and specs. Instead, with a friendly, soft-voiced narrator right out of an Apple iPad commercial, they seek to create an emotional bond with viewers. “For years, we’ve been placing the things you love at your doorstep…” starts one recent one spot.

Contrast that approach with a commercial Samsung produced for its tablet, overflowing with a dizzying montage of features like the screen’s auto- rotation, its Swype virtual keyboard, mapping app and video conferencing.

Even in its first iteration, the Kindle Fire probably won’t overtake the iPad. Tablets are a highly discretionary purchase with buyers skewing towards upper income brackets. This year’s Fire makes the most sense for holiday gift shoppers on tight budgets, parents looking for a second (or even third) tablet to satisfy the kids, and teenagers spending their own hard-earned cash.

Some, but not all, of those buyers would have opted for the iPad before – that’s clear from surveys by market researchers ChangeWave and Retrevo among others.

Target said the Fire outsold the iPad, even with a discount, at its stores on “Black Friday.” And it’s probably no coincidence that Apple chopped prices across the iPad line as part of its own “Black Friday” event.

Reuters columnist John Abell was in good company last week when he derided the Fire and Barnes & Noble’s sort of similar tablet, saying they would end up as “either a big mistake or an incremental side business” to e-readers. “Neither are they likely to give Apple agita,” he said.

But with all the good ideas Amazon stole from Apple, the agita is just getting started.

Photo: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos holds up the new Kindle Fire at a news conference during the launch of Amazon’s new tablets in New York, September 28, 2011. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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One thing neither B&N or Amazon have copied: Making any money off the device itself. They may even be losing money. It’s an old strategy to give away razors to sell blades, but Apple makes lots of money off the hardware, and lots off their cut of apps, which still attract outsized developer interest over Android (at least when it comes to tablets). So I think Apple’s agita index will remain quite low for the foreseeable future. 

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