Android has been struggling to pull tablet market share away from the iPad with all the effectiveness of waves crashing against the rocks. Google has developed a more focused (and non-open source) variant of Android with Honeycomb, but users haven’t been flocking to it. What a kick in the pants it would be if it was Amazon that finally had success with Android on a tablet.
It’s not just Google’s pride that could be injured if the new Kindle Fire takes off; the bottom line could take a hit too. Amazon is technically using Android, but it’s not Google’s vision of Android and there are no Google apps on board. The Fire might realign the tablet market in a big way, to the detriment of Google’s tablets.
Consumer perception and success
The Kindle Fire is leveraging the much beloved Kindle brand to lure in users. People trust Amazon and they love their Kindles. This is a device that will do everything that their Kindle does, but more. To an average user, this doesn’t feel like a simplified Android tablet; it’s a really smart Kindle. Holiday shoppers are going to go looking for a Kindle, and come out with a tablet.
The Kindle Fire is running Android, but it might as well not be. Just like the Nook Color, the entire UI has been replaced with the a custom interface. In fact, The Fire is even more of a departure from Android than the Nook Color. Since this is not an officially blessed Google device, there is no Android or Google branding on it. This is Amazon’s show, and Google won’t get any of the publicity for it. App sales are also going to be managed through Amazon, so Google won't get a piece of that pie either.
For the average technology consumer, Android on a tablet is not a very approachable experience. Taking a tablet, simplifying the UI and slapping the Kindle name on it is going to work wonders. It’s going to be Amazon’s fierce retail might and consumer trust that make this device a win; and it’s going to win without Google’s help.
When the HP TouchPad came down in price during the fire sale, we speculated that pumping the market full of $99 tablets could push consumers away from $500 devices in the future. Of course, the main argument against that is the limited availability of the TouchPad. Well, here we have a perfectly capable device that clocks in at just $199. That’s far cheaper than any Honeycomb tablet.
We’re already seeing Honeycomb tablets languish as they sell for slightly higher or lower than the iPad. With a competent Android tablet from Amazon at $200, things are going to get hairy the next time Samsung asks for $479 for a tablet.
The response to this $200 device is going to be huge. We have to remember that it was just a little over a year ago that the old eInk Kindle 2 was selling for $260. Now users will be able to get a color Kindle tablet for less than that. When viewed from this angle, it’s hard to see how a non-iPad tablet costing more than twice as much can be appealing to a wide audience.
The only way that Google can keep their footing and survive in the tablet game, is to aggressively attack the low end. If they can approach the price of the Fire, but offer a fuller feature set, some users could be persuaded to go with a Google experience device. The high-end $400-500 device will still be there, but that’s not where all the action is going to be.
Just enough polish
Why is it that a simple device like the Fire could disrupt Android tablets? Because it’s good enough. People like the iPad, there is no doubt about that. And that’s just the thing; they like the iPad, not tablets in general. When was the last time you heard a non-techy friend talk about how much they wanted a Galaxy Tab? Ice Cream Sandwich tablets might be phenomenal, but mainstream Android tablets will still have a credibility problem.
When we’re talking about the overwhelming majority of consumers, they either want an iPad, or something that is much cheaper and is ‘just good enough’. That’s the Kindle Fire. Amazon has developed an easy to use interface loaded it with content that people already own in many cases, and offered enough unique features that people won’t regret buying it.
It is this scenario that may be Google’s biggest problem when it comes to the Fire. Look at how Android on phones evolved. First it was for uber-nerds, then as the months wore on, and no credible iPhone competitor showed up, Android improved by leaps and bounds. When Android 2.x hit the scene, users responded by buying phones and haven’t stopped since. Lower priced devices and easier to use software saved Android.
By slipping a cheap and polished tablet into the market, Amazon has essentially thrown up a road block in Google’s way. The path that Android on phones took is no longer accessible to the Big G. There is not time for Google to slowly beat up on the iPad anymore; they need to take action to survive.
Successful ventures are not made exclusively by retaining a contingent of highly-savvy (dare we say nerdy?) fans. If this were the case, Firefly would be entering its ninth season about now after winning every Emmy, every year. Amazon’s tablet will appeal to consumers by being an acceptable alternative to the iPad, not better than it. Real Android tablets might end up marginalized in this situation, unless Google acts. Low-price and high-quality are opposing forces, but we never said it was going to be easy for Google and its partners.