Amazon tablet: How Jeff Bezos can build an iPad competitor.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 23 2011 6:15 PM

Do Less, Do It Better

A recipe for Amazon's rumored iPad competitor.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Can anyone beat the iPad?

When Hewlett-Packard announced late last week that it would stop making its TouchPad tablet, the move was surprising only for its speed and finality. In the last year, we've seen at least four major attempts to take on Apple's iPad—the Motorola Xoom, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the BlackBerry PlayBook, and HP's TouchPad. (There have been countless other tablets from smaller firms.) While every one of these has failed, most iPad rivals tend to be evasive when it comes to their terrible sales numbers. Give HP a cookie for acknowledging reality: When the TouchPad went on sale a few weeks ago, it was clear that it could never live up to the vision for tablet nirvana that HP offered when it unveiled the device in February. The TouchPad was buggy, bereft of apps, and it felt cheap in your hands. Sales were dismal, and justifiably so. HP recognized the obvious: Why would anyone choose the TouchPad over the iPad?

HP's decision ought to wake up other Apple rivals. I'm hoping that they, too, cut their losses and rethink their strategies. So far, every would-be tablet king has attempted to beat the iPad by promising better specs and features. They argue that their devices are faster than the iPad, or that they're somehow less restrictive—they run Adobe Flash, so they can offer the "full Web," and they offer USB and other slots found on PCs, so they can connect with more peripherals.

This battle plan has failed. Apple has sold 25 million iPads so far, and it's poised to double that number by the end of the year. Customers clearly don't care about the iPad's alleged shortcomings. In fact, the iPad's "shortcomings" are part of its appeal. People don't buy an iPad because they want to replace a PC; they buy it because they want to escape their PC. The iPad offers a way of doing some of what you do on your computer—email, the Web, and videos—in a more convenient, hassle-free environment. On account of that, the rivals' argument that they can do more than the iPad doesn't make sense. In the tablet market, doing more stuff with a worse user experience isn't as good as doing less but doing it better.

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So here's another idea: Someone ought to make a tablet that sets out to do less than the iPad—but better. I'm thinking of a tablet that doesn't claim to be faster, doesn't try to run Flash, doesn't try to do video-conferencing or movie editing, won't attempt multitasking, and doesn't match the iPad's battery life. But what it does do, it will do beautifully. It will have instant access to a large library of books, music, and movies. It will be thin, light, turn on instantly, and offer a fluid, intuitive user interface. It will offer an app store, one that's aggressively curated to sell only apps that work very well on the tablet's not-too-fast processor. (You could play puzzle games on it, but not 3-D action shooters.) And here's the best part: It would sell for $200.

When I say that someone ought to make this thing, there's only one person I have on my list—Jeff Bezos. In July, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon.com is working on a tablet that will go on sale in the fall. The Journal, citing unnamed "people familiar with the matter," said that Amazon's tablet would be based on a version of Google's Android operating system, and that it wouldn't include any cameras. John Gruber of Daring Fireball reports that Amazon has completely remade Android for its own purposes. Other rumors say that Amazon's tablet will use an inexpensive touchscreen that is capable of keeping track of only two fingers. (Most other tablets, including the iPad, can keep track of 10 fingers.) That's pretty much all we know about the AmazonPad, but these are encouraging signs—no cameras, no elaborate multitouch, and a version of Android that will be specifically tailored for the tablet format. So, Amazon seems to be building a tablet that does less than the iPad. The question now is whether it can do less better.

Better than Apple is a tall order, certainly. Apple has spent years perfecting its mobile OS, and I don't think Amazon has a chance of offering anything as polished. But Amazon does have other ways of matching Apple. Part of the appeal of Amazon's Kindle e-reader is the device's seamless connection to Amazon's online bookstore. When you open your Kindle, it's already connected to your Amazon account—you can start browsing and buying e-books immediately. The tablet would offer the same connection to Amazon's movie, music, and Android app stores, too.

Amazon's other advantage is in pricing. Most Apple rivals have so far failed to beat the iPad on price. Apple has used its cash and the company's huge scale to make lucrative long-term contracts with component suppliers, allowing it to make the iPad for much less than other manufacturers can. Amazon can undercut Apple in two ways—first, by using cheaper components, and second, by recouping some of its costs through the sales of digital content. This strategy has worked well on the Kindle. Amazon seems to barely break even on each Kindle it sells, and instead tries to make a profit through book sales—a direct contrast to Apple, which makes a bundle on hardware sales and considers the App Store just gravy on top. Jeff Bezos is known to be the Crazy Eddie of the tech world; whenever anyone tries to match his prices, he goes lower. That will surely be his approach to tablets, too.

Will this strategy work? I don't think it will put a dent in iPad sales. But that doesn't have to be the goal. Consumer surveys suggest that a large number of people want tablets but consider them too expensive—they'd get one if they could find it for less than $250. Now, it could be that these people mean they're waiting for the iPad to fall to that price—after all, for most people, "tablet" is synonymous with iPad, and it's unclear if they'll buy just any cheap device. Fortunately for Amazon, Apple isn't going to touch the discount market. (At least, it isn't going to anytime soon; it's selling as many iPads as it can make.) That means Amazon would have the low-priced market pretty much to itself.

The key for Amazon would be to market the device carefully, avoiding any suggestion that this is a do-it-all device. In fact, don't even call this a "tablet"—that name alone raises expectations that it will be something like the iPad, and Amazon should resist any such comparison. Instead, the perfect Amazon tab would be much closer to the Kindle: a device for consuming Amazon's content. Call it the Kindle Plus—and watch it fly off the shelves.

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