Amazon’s new tablet isn’t nearly as good as the iPad. But it’s good enough—and really cheap.
The best way to sum up everything else on the Fire is, “Eh.” Its Web browser isn’t as fast as the iPad’s, but it’ll be adequate for most people. (The Fire plays Flash videos, too, though the quality isn’t fantastic.) The Fire’s built-in app store has lots of popular programs—Facebook, Hulu Plus, Pandora, lots of Twitter clients—but if you’re an app fiend, you’ll be better off with the iPad. And finally, while the Fire is good at books, it’s not so great at newspapers and magazines. Some of the titles in the Kindle’s Newstand store make no special effort to display on the tablet—the New York Times, for instance, publishes its stories as a boring list. Other titles try to mimic their print pages, but this feels off as well. Because magazine pages are of a different proportion than the Kindle Fire’s screen, a full print page can’t fill up the Fire’s display. You’ve got to zoom out to see the whole page, in which case everything looks too small; but if you zoom in, you’ve got to do a lot of panning to see the page. In short: If you’re into Maxim, stick with print.
Shortly after Jeff Bezos unveiled the Fire in September, the research firm iSuppli reported that it probably costs Amazon about $210 to make each Fire. In other words, Amazon is losing at least $10 on every tablet it sells. This is not surprising. Bezos is the Crazy Eddie of the tech industry, and his business model, with the Fire, is to get the device out to millions of people and make up for the loss with all the books, music, movies, and Prime memberships he expects to sell through the device.
Before I used the Fire, I considered this a circuitous way to make money. Though it’s not quite as roundabout as Google’s plan to give away Android in order to one day make a profit on ads from mobile phones, it’s also not nearly as straightforward as the old-fashioned way Apple makes money: by selling its products for more than it spends to make them. Yet the more I used the Fire, the more I warmed to Bezos’ strategy. The Fire, like the E-Ink Kindle, is phenomenally good at separating users from their money. You’re always just a couple of clicks away from a purchase, and when you do buy something, there are no hurdles—you don’t even have to enter your password. Bezos once reported that Kindle owners become voracious book buyers; once you get a Kindle, you start buying nearly twice as many books as you did in the past. I suspect the Fire will have an even greater effect on purchases, and that it will be especially effective at pushing people to subscribe to Amazon Prime. According to some estimates, the average Prime member doubles his Amazon purchases in the first year of using that service. If a cheap Kindle Fire is nothing more than a Trojan horse for selling Prime subscriptions, then that could be a gold mine for Amazon.
And yet, I doubt Amazon will ever make the same profit on its tablet that Apple makes from the iPad. (It costs Apple about $330 to make the cheapest iPad, which the company sells for $499.) But we’ll see: If the Fire takes off, Apple may have no choice but to reduce the price of the iPad. That probably won’t happen next year, because demand for the iPad remains through the roof. But remember that Bezos is always slashing prices. I wouldn’t be surprised if, over the next few years, the Fire’s price goes down to $150, maybe even $100. At that point, Apple will have to respond with cheaper iPads for everyone. That’s why we should all hail Amazon’s not-very-good, supercheap tablet: good enough for not much money might change everything.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.