Why The Kindle Fire Is The First Real Alternative To iPad, And How It Predicts The iPad Mini [Opinion]



On Twitter, one of Cult of Mac’s readers said calling the Kindle Fire competition to the iPad 2 was like calling a Kia competition to a Porsche.

It’s an interesting analogy. True, the Kindle Fire’s hardware is inferior to the iPad 2’s in almost every way. It boasts an 800MHz dual-core processor to the iPad 2’s 1.2GHz A5 dual-core powerhouse. The screen is smaller than the iPad 2’s, though it has better pixel density. It only has 8GB of storage, it has no 3G, no GPS, no camera. It only registers two points of multitouch to the iPad 2’s eleven, for god’s sake. So the analogy seems to fit, right?

Not so fast. Sure, Apple’s hardware is great, but Apple has proven that hardware is only as good as its software. That’s why Apple’s products are so magical: they are a seamless amalgam of excellence in software and hardware design, intertwined.

It’s a philosophy towards design that Apple’s competitors have just never understood. And that’s why the Kindle Fire is going to be huge, the iPad’s first real competitor. The Kindle Fire is going to be a Kia that drives like a Porsche, and when Apple counters it — and I think they will — it’ll be going head-to-head with an iPad mini.

Forget the specs of the Kindle Fire, because hardware specs are totally misleading. Look at the second-gen MacBook Air, on which I’m typing this editorial. If you look at the specs, it looks like an underpowered half-laptop: a tiny 11-inch display, 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. Ridiculous. Yet I can say without hesitation that this laptop not only feels like the fastest computer I’ve ever owned because of the fusion of a solid state drive with Apple’s smart, fast OS X operating system, but I love it more than even a more fully formed computer like my 27-inch iMac.

Why? The MacBook Air limits what it tries to do to what it can do excellently. It’s a machine that is light in every sense of the word, but its on-paper limitations are its greatest strengths. The MacBook Air has a mission statement, and its hardware was carefully chosen to fulfill it.

So does the Kindle Fire. The Kindle Fire exists to allow you to seamlessly absorb and experience content from Amazon’s walled garden of music, books, magazines, video and apps. All of the hardware matters only so much as it allows you to do that, quickly and without interruption.

Amazon started out with a mission to make a low-cost, entry-level tablet that felt as fast as an iPad and cost so little that even people who would balk at the iPad 2’s cheap $499 price could afford to buy one. And it looks, like all accounts, that they succeeded.

First of all, one thing numerous hand-ons mention is that the Kindle Fire feels fast. Like “holy freaking cow” fast, despite that “dinky” 800MHz dual-core OMAP processor. Why? Because Amazon is pulling an Apple here. An 800MHz processor is fine if you have a tight control on your ecosystem and make custom software that can fully exploit the chip’s strengths, and that’s just what Amazon has done. They took an old version of Android (2.1), forked it, and then pruned out every string of code, every superfluous function, every driver for other pieces of hardware that was gunking it up, bloating it up, making it crawl. They then linked it intimately with their Cloud EC2 infrastructure, allowing the Kindle Fire to offload tasks it wasn’t quite beefy enough to handle to the cloud to save on processing power, storage and battery life. When Amazon was done, they had an operating system that does 95% of what people want their tablets to do, yet feels as fast as an iPad thanks to excellent software and cloud integration.

That 95% number is important to remember, because it’s the key to not underestimating how big the Kindle Fire could be. Most of what people do on their tablets are browse, read, do light social networking, watch video and listen to music, and the Kindle Fire does all of these things almost as well as an iPad, yet at hundreds of dollars less. Don’t forget that the iPad 2’s $499 price is a big barrier to entry for the vast majority of consumers. In comparison, $199 for a device that feels as fast and can do 95% of what most iPad users use their tablets for is a huge, huge advantage.

Amazon has played this just so smart. They’ve been respectful of Apple’s success with the iPad, and they have learned all the right lessons. Amazon has the only real competitor to Apple’s iTunes media ecosystem. It’s the only company out there who does most of what Apple does — video, music, books, magazines and apps. And just like the iPad is the optimal portal into iTunes, the Kindle Fire is the optimal portal into Amazon. But Amazon wasn’t stupid enough to try to compete with the iPad in the same consumer space, because they know they can’t: at $499 and above, Amazon can only be a copycat and also-ran. At $199, though, they’ve opened themselves up to millions upon millions of would-be tablet owners Apple isn’t reaching right now… and they’ve done so without compromising, as so many competitors have done, the soul of their device.

The Kindle Fire isn’t an iPad killer by any means, but it doesn’t have to be. It has still made the iPad look expensive for the first time since it debuted. For the last two years, only Apple has been able to build a fast, capable sub-$500 tablet. Now the iPad suddenly looks expensive.

It’s not perfect — the lack of 3G on a tablet that relies as heavily on the cloud as the Kindle Fire does is just a bizarre omission — but if you think mere specs are why the Kindle Fire will lose against iPad, think again. In a year, the Kindle Fire is going to be just as common a sight on subways and buses as the Kindle is now.

I love my iPad 2, and I won’t part with it, but I’ve pre-ordered a Kindle Fire, because I think this is the only tablet out there that actually has a chance of challenging the iPad’s marketshare.

And you know what else? I think the Kindle Fire is a template for what we’ll see next year: a $250 iPad mini, that leverages Apple’s iCloud, good software design and cheaper components to make buying a tablet as entry-level as picking up an iPod touch. The only reason Amazon was able to beat Apple to that goal was because their cloud infrastructure is already in place, while Apple’s still building out iCloud.

Once that’s done, there’ll be no reason for Apple not to challenge the Kindle Fire in the same market space, with an entry-level iPad that does what the Kindle Fire does, but with all of the incredible advantage of Apple’s iTunes and App Store ecosystems.

When that happens? It’ll be war on the streets. My money’s on Apple long term, but it’s exciting to see another company finally throw the first punch.

  • GregsTechBlog

    With iOS 5, and all the cloud features, it seems logical that Apple has been preparing an “iPad Mini”. And, with new competition from Amazon, they might have to release one. 

  • Ed_Kel

    When I first heard of the Kindle Fire I thought of Apple releasing an iPad Mini as well. It would be a killer move on Apple’s part.

  • Brian1rr

    A 7.7 ipad with the resolution of the current one priced at 300 and a bump in resolution for the 9.7 for next year

  • bppump911

    The power is in the cloud!  Apple’s iOS 5 dismissed streaming from the cloud as unnnecessary.  I believe that Apple will regret that decision and (perhaps) revisit it.  Those who ignore the power of the cloud (and its ability to save costly device storage space) are living in the past.

  • Lorenzo Calleja

    They won’t release an iPad mini. It’ll be an expansion to the iPod line most likely. iPod = consumption, iPad = computing. Furthermore, scaling up iPhone apps to a 5-7″ screen makes more sense than scaling down iPad apps. 

  • Jack McClauren

    That thing won’t compete with Apple’s iPad. I mean, it’s a toy, made of plastic.

  • imajoebob

    A couple problems with your Kia/Porsche analogy: No one has ever succeeded in making anything that even LOOKS like a Porsche, never mind drives like one, other than Porsche.  Some companies can put together some components that look or feel Porsche-like, but nobody’s ever combined all the skills needed to make a Porsche.  And no computer maker has matched Apple’s talent for building a complete system, whether computer, audio player, or phone.  It still hasn’t happened with this.  At best, you’ve got yourself a Cadillac Allante, at worst a Hyundai Tiburon.

    As for an iPad mini, Apple needs look no further than the Porsche 914 to learn that not even Porsche can make a cut-rate Porsche.  They’re much better off just doing what they’ve done with the iPhone.  Cut the price on the old model and let the bargain hunters buy old technology, not crippled garbage.

  • pangeomedia

    Costly device storage space? On what planet? Hello? Bandwidth costs money these days. Unlimited is for home, and that’s changing fast. 3G, 4G et al, are charging for usage and it’s not pretty. Streaming movies and music over WiFi on the road? Get real. Streaming movies and music over 3G or 4G? Get a higher limit on your credit card.

    I’ll sit back and let the hype cool down. After all, Fire is not in the wild. iPads are. After all, iOS 5 and iCloud and iPad 3 and iPhone 5 are not in the wild.

  • Ajhcs40

    Apple will never release a 7 inch tablet iPad mini. I remember when Steve was discussing the “competition” and he said “we at apple don’t think 7 inches is a good screensize to do anything on the the tablet”. I doubt Apple is even worried about Amazon’s tablet. They have been through all of this before with the iPod and the cheaper MP3 player. The MP3 player isn’t around anymore because iPod won.

  • blueleaves

    I think that Amazon underestimates Amazon at their peril – this is a serious challenge. And it’s a recession, where people are hurting. Maybe it’s plastic but maybe the price point is too good to turn down.

    Apple will have to be very aggressive with its pricing next week. And I’m holding out for the surprise 7 inch iPad next week – they must’ve known what Amazon was planning given their supply chains.

  • bppump911

    But the major cloud feature needed for a “mini” device with little storage space is streaming.  And streaming is the one big cloud feature that Apple made a conscious decision to omit from iOS 5.  So how exactly does Apple build a “mini” device without reversing field on its no-streaming decision for iOS 5?

  • bppump911

    WiFi actually is becoming more prevalent and is still free.  Last I checked, the 64GB iPad was several hundred dollars more than the 16 GB iPad.  And if you’re just one of those people willing to pay more because you have more, good for you.  But most consumers today are looking for value.  And streaming around my house has no marginal cost.

  • GregsTechBlog

    I think Apple would go for 8GB min, 16GB max on a mini device, which would help a little. 

    But I do think that, if Apple could get the record labels behind it, streaming could resurface in iOS for a mini device. 

  • cassandralite

    What I think the Fire will do is push millions of people who don’t yet have a Kindle or an iPad.  These millions are the people for whom reading is most important; people who actually have long wanted to break into e-reading.  But then in 2010, just when Kindle had reached critical mass–and a mass-market price point–the iPad blew these people out of the market with its incredible functionality.  They decided to put off their buying until the market found some clarity.  Now it has.  Now they’ll be able to justify a couple of hundred bucks for an e-reader that has a color screen and a fair amount of functionality, so they don’t feel like Luddite dweebs.  True, Steve has said that a small screen isn’t something they’re interested in.  But he also once (or twice) said that e-readers would never find a market.

  • Richard Mears

    Looks like a two horse race now. If I was Steve Balmer I’d be shitting in my pants.

    No-one seems to have mentioned Amazon’s biggest advantage: 
    They don’t need to make any money from this.
    They DO need to stop Apple from owning the tablet space to not lose out on what’s important to Amazon – selling ebooks, movies, music, etc. I think we’ll see a model similar to the consoles of old where Amazon’ll break even on the tablet to get maximum penetration. A tablet with no profit margin would be a pretty tough competitor.I think in the future they may bring out something with relatively similar specs to an iPad, but minus the profit margin. 

    It may always be a poor man’s iPad – but there’s a lot of “poor men” out there who would really love an iPad…

  • David Salzberg

    This could be interesting.  Apple can not produce an iPad for $200 — not without making sacrifices. 

    Amazon is clearly going for a lower quality solution:  slower cpu, less battery life, less memory (flash), no camera, plastic case, and (maybe) no IPS display.  My guess is that reduces the build cost by close to a factor of two.

    I expect that this will provide the same impact to the iPad as HP laptops (and others) do to Macbook Air/Pro:  the people wanting an iPad will still buy an iPad.  But many will be happy with the kindle fire.

  • brownlee

    Steve says many things when it suits him. He said the iPod would never do video too, remember?

  • supertino

    Apple didn’t chose to omit streaming. They went by the rules of the music industry as dictated to them. Amazon and Google chose to store and stream music from the cloud in defiance to the industry.

    Eventually, the playing field will level. Either Amazon and Google will be dragged to court and be forced to properly license the content or Apple will be allowed to stream too without extra costs.

    OR the music industry will just revert to DRM’ed music if Amazon and Google don’t tow their line (shudder).

  • Here

    Another ridiculous link-bait article. Nice going.

  • Guncrazy1

    Then why there is still no iPhone nano yet?

  • reg park

    I too don’t like the Kia/Porsche analogy – but for a different reason – no one will mistake one for the other – but use Lexus/Mercedes and you are getting close – The first LS400 was almost an S-Class for half the price – and it was almost as good – not quite, but close. Kia/Porsche is wrong – Lexus/MBZ is on target.

  • .02

    Hell of an article John. And I agree with every point and prediction. I have an iPad 2 and even that price point had me thinking …. hmmm

  • Mike Rathjen

    I would love an iPad Mini. I’ve wanted one since the first iPad was announced. Easier to handle, lighter, less expensive, higher DPI at the same resolution…

  • CharliK

    I have to disagree on one point. Apple has never been about doing what others do. They have spoken their disdain for a less than 10″ tablet and no matter how well the Fire sells, they are likely to change their minds.

  • CharliK

    Sstreaming requires huge data use, which the carriers loathe and are pricing out of existence. Even putting it on wifi risks a less than stellar performance

  • bppump911

    No, you try again.  Push from the cloud to your device ONLY; no streaming option available.  Check your facts before trying to post a “cool,” but rude, reply.

  • bppump911

    Seriously?  Apple offered a streaming option in one of its beta versions of iOS 5, but decided against it.  iTunes music is owned by the purchaser (as is Amazon music) to stream as they please.  The recording industry is not just sitting by and letting Amazon violate their copyrights.  You are confused by the concept of “renting” music, which is not at issue here.  Apple made a business decision, not a legal decision.

  • bppump911

    Seriously?  Apple offered a streaming option in one of its beta versions of iOS 5, but decided against it.  iTunes music is owned by the purchaser (as is Amazon music) to stream as they please.  The recording industry is not just sitting by and letting Amazon violate their copyrights.  You are confused by the concept of “renting” music, which is not at issue here.  Apple made a business decision, not a legal decision.

  • Bergensen101

    For every Mac Pro, there is a Mac Mini. For every 17″ MacBook, there is a 11.6″ Air. For every iPod Touch, there is an iPod Nano. For every iPad, there WILL be an iPad Mini.

  • Kytih

    not sure how much rom is on this device. if they do a crappy 256mb then this is dead.

    itunes vs amazon. which one is better?

  • John Mozelewski

    apple always does what other people do and that’s what makes them money they find things that other people have done and make them look fancy and call it new they don’t create much at all

  • iVan

    The iPod touch really needs a bigger screen. Considering how small its components are just imagine how thin and light they could make it…

  • John Mozelewski

    This thing will do well just because of price and who cant spend 200 bucks on something, but android 2.1 doesn’t even support flash which is one of best things about android. Don’t tell me that flash doesn’t work well i have a rooted nook color and it plays flash almost a good as a computer. If apple would just put flash on there ipad id cave in and get one but that big of a screen is a waste without flash content.

  • SbMobile

    This author really believes that Apple, currently the most successful & valuable company in the world, is going to “react” to what another company does?! Never have, never will! In 6 months, when this new tablet doesn’t sell, this author won’t even acknowledge this article exists. 

  • SbMobile

    Anyone on here that thinks Apple would make a “mini” iPad, to compete with companies that won’t be around in 5 years, is RETARDED!! At least try using an iOS device once or twice, before sharing your “totally” ignorant statements to the public!

  • SbMobile

    Anyone on here that thinks Apple would make a “mini” iPad, to compete with companies that won’t be around in 5 years, is RETARDED!! At least try using an iOS device once or twice, before sharing your “totally” ignorant statements to the public!

  • Asdf

    The derp is strong with this article. I’ve heard iPhone 6 and iPad mini in the last 24 hours on this site.  It’s one thing to have rumors. It’s another to just start making stuff up.

  • Koppat

    Great article!

  • Jason Allen

    Interesting article, will be interesting to see how it pans out.. .

    I’m not so sure how well the Kindle Fire will work over in Europe as Amazon are yet to launch all of its services over here :o/

  • Saturdayniteguy

    What does an average tablet buyer look for?
    – good browsing experience over WiFi
    – nice multi-touch experience and a smoother touch screen
    – check emails
    – ability to listen to their fav music
    – watch videos
    – read ebooks
    – and do all the above things in the comfort of his couch or outside like the campus/airports, etc freeing him from sitting in front of your desktop/PC

    Smart buyers do not care for the high-end hardware that a company tries to ‘up’ their specs just to compete with other tablets(and thereby ‘up’ their $$$). Its just that they should be able to do the above stuff at a very reasonable price. The amount of the dollar bills flying out of his pocket is also his biggest concern in this kind of economy.

    Keeping all this in mind, I think Amazon has hit the right cord with the average consumer who require a tablet. I think, one can experience all these with this new Kindle without shelling out a huge amount of money.

    I personally feel the iPad is over-priced for doing all the above listed basic tasks. Even iPad users do the above things most of the time. If i am able to do all these basic stuff at a lower price tag, why not go for it. I dont care for the iPad’s dual camera which don’t even give me a picture quality as close as a still-digicam. I don’t care for the games that run on the iPads. Work is important so no time for gaming. More important is family that I spend my weekends with rather than spend time gaming. So Amazon’s Kindle is the one for me which let me connect occasionally to the online world at a reasonable cost.

  • CharliK

    “Apple always does” you say

    So where do I pick up that iphone with the removable SD card for more storage. And the computers with the blu-ray drives. Stores in my area don’t seem to have them or know they exist. 

    Again, Apple does what Apple wants no matter how much folks on the blogs whine for something or how well it sells for someone else. If Apple doesn’t want it, it doesn’t happen. So no, even if the 7inch Fire blows up in sales it doesn’t mean that Apple will do a 7 inch anything (iPod touch or iPad)

  • Alfiejr

    JB, you and all the other pundits gushing over the Fire really should wait until you have the real thing in hand to test and review in detail, you know? a demo at a press conference is never the complete story – haven’t you learned that hard lesson yet, after so many other hypes at the announcement phase have turned to flops in real life? just how good a user experience the Fire is in all the ways that matter, and how well the hardware performs in real life, remain to be seen. or do you always just swallow the hype you are spoon fed at these press events?

    but what is really disappointing about this post is how inexplicably blind you are to the plain fact THERE ALREADY IS a low-priced “iPad Mini” and has been for several years – it’s the iPod touch of course. you’re writing for CultofMac, you’re supposed to know this stuff. forget what Apple named it, that’s just marketing. for just $229, $30 more than a Fire, you get right now everything the Fire has and more. in a beautiful package, i might add, not the Fire’s clunky modified Playbook chassis. 

    the only real advantage of the Fire vs. the touch is of course the Fire’s 7″ screen is twice the touch’s 3.5″ size, with 4X the screen area. that makes the Fire easier to use for most, altho too big for most pockets. both are running smartphone apps, the Fire just scales them up – not great.

    i’d agree if, having noted this, you concluded Apple should come out with a larger model of the iPod touch, like 5.5,” to address the same “convenience tablet” market. with about 2X the screen area of a 3.5″ model this size has been used by Sony for its PGP, and it works really good for users (but Sony has other problems). it’s more pocket-friendly too.

    simply enlarging the size of the iPod touch would not add that much to its manufacturing cost, as all the stuff inside would be the same except a larger battery. Apple could sell one for $299.

    so if you had a lovely $299 slim and light 5.5″ Apple iPod touch on a store table next to the dowdy $199 thick and heavy 7″ Amazon Fire, which would you buy?

    one thing you might take in to account making that choice is that the touch could use its Amazon app to scan bar codes in that store and comparison shop at Amazon for better prices on the web. but having no camera, Amazon’s own Fire could not.

  • esarawilliams
    I read somewhere the new Glaxy Tab 2 (7.0) is Alternative For iPad – and it is one of cheapest gadget? 

    what is truth behind this?
  • ApplePr0n

    I reslly think that the ipad mini will take the place of the iPod Touch