“What I’m about to show you,” Jeff Bezos says, “is the culmination of the many things we’ve been doing for 15 years.”
The CEO of Amazon.com, in regulation blue oxford shirt and jeans, is sitting in a conference room at his company’s spiffy new headquarters just north of downtown Seattle. It is mid-September, exactly one week before he will introduce a new line of Kindles to the world. He has already shown me two of them—one with a touchscreen, the other costing just $79—but that’s not what’s truly exciting him. It is a third gadget, the long-awaited Amazon tablet called the Kindle Fire, that represents his company’s most ambitious leap into the hearts, minds, and wallets of millions of consumers.
Bezos runs through the features that will soon set the tech world ablaze—the $199 price tag, the easy-to-hold size, the seamless access to Amazon’s rich and growing collection of digital media. When the Fire is introduced, analysts will declare it the strongest competitor yet to the iPad. Yet the Fire is not just a rival gadget, but something essentially different. The iPad is the flagship of the post-PC era—in which the desktop is replaced by lean, portable, gesture-driven tablets. As people will learn when Amazon ships it today, November 14, the Fire is an emblem of a post-web world, in which our devices are simply a means for us to directly connect with the goodies in someone’s data center.
“We are culturally pioneers. we like to disrupt even our own business. other companies have different cultures and sometimes don’t like to do that. our job is to bring those industries along.”
While users of the iPad and the Fire will engage in many of the same activities—watching movies, reading books, playing Angry 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.
Indeed, Bezos doesn’t consider the Fire a mere device, preferring to call it a “media service.” While he takes pride in the Fire, he really sees it as an advanced mobile portal to Amazon’s cloud universe. That’s how Amazon has always treated the Kindle: New models simply offer improved ways of buying and reading the content. Replacing the hardware is no more complicated or emotionally involved than changing a flashlight battery.
(That’s why, in a sense, some of the iPad comparisons and cavils you may read today in the hands-on reviews of Fire are somewhat irrelevant in light of this larger issue. Yes, the Fire lacks the industrial-design pyrotechnics that make fanboys foam at the mouth like the iPad does. But who cares? Like a lizard shedding its skin, next year there will be another Fire and in three years the original will look as antiquated as the bizarre-looking Kindle 1 appears today. When you pay $199 for Fire, you’re not buying a gadget—you’re filing citizen papers for the digital duchy of Amazonia.)
The iPad emphasizes downloads—customers who buy music, TV shows, or movies through iTunes must download them to their machine. (Even users of its new iCloud service must download their music to listen to it—at least for now.) This keeps iPads tethered to the paradigm of local storage, putting a premium on machines with more memory (which cost hundreds of dollars more). Amazon, by contrast, emphasizes streaming. Fire users can store up to 20 GB of music for free on the company’s servers (or an unlimited amount of music bought from Amazon). They can then stream it freely, along with more than 100,000 videos. That’s probably why the Fire’s virtual hard drive is just 8 GB, half the size of the smallest iPad.
The glory of the iPad, as well as the iPhone, is its operating system; Apple’s proprietary iOS is one of the main selling points, and the company regularly adds new features—most recently Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant. The Fire is built on Google’s competing Android OS, but a simplified version of it. (Fire users will have access to a heavily curated subset of the 250,000 Android apps.) Bezos seems to believe that people should care less about what their OS can do and just be able to stream the damn movie. (It’s a similar philosophy to Google’s Chrome OS, but tied to a proprietary piece of hardware and Amazon’s universe of media services.)
The Fire does have one compelling new piece of software: a faster browser called Silk. But even that is a servant of Amazon’s cloud vision. Over the past eight years, the company has capitalized on its data center expertise to build a vast cloud computing platform, which hosts web operations for some of the world’s largest Internet companies—even competitors like Netflix. (The support of such a massive infrastructure is really what differentiates the Fire from the seemingly similar $249 Nook tablet—Barnes and Noble has nothing like Amazon’s cloud behind it, limiting the Nook’s ability to deliver a varied range of services.) When surfing the Internet, the Silk browser harnesses those cloud servers to do much of the processing. “We call it a split browser, because it’s half in the cloud and half on the Fire,” Bezos says. It’s a hack that aims to make web pages download much faster. But it also has grand ramifications: It points to an era in which the device is so secondary that even computation takes place in the cloud.
The release of the Fire showcases how forward-thinking Bezos has been. After 15 years near the top of the tech heap, he doesn’t have the same outsize profile of other Internet innovators. (Nobody has made a TV biopic or Academy Award-winning drama about his rise to power, for instance.) But that may be changing. People are slowly beginning to realize just how much of the Web is powered by Amazon’s cloud services. And industry observers see Amazon’s entry into the tablet sweepstakes as further evidence that Bezos may well be the premier technologist in America, a figure who casts as big a shadow as legends like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs.