I wasn’t going to write about Apple’s latest release in the iPad Mini and iPad 4 mostly because there wasn’t really anything to write about. The iPad 4 was a bit of a shock considering that the 3 is barely 6 months old and was a pretty significant upgrade over its predecessor so you wouldn’t really think it needed a refresh this early on. The iPad Mini was widely rumoured for a very long time, so much so that blogging about it would feel like I was coming incredibly late to a party that I didn’t really care about in the first place. Thinking about it more though the iPad Mini represents a lot more than just Apple releasing yet another iOS product, it’s a sign of how Apple is no longer in control of the market they created.
Steve Jobs famously said that a tablet smaller than the iPad wouldn’t make any sense as it’d be too small to compete with regular tablets and too big to compete with smart phones. With Apple’s relatively long development cycle its likely that he was aware of the iPad Mini development but I don’t think the idea for its creation came from him. It was easy for him to make judgements from atop the massive tower of iPad sales that he was sitting on at the time however I don’t think he expected them to be as successful as they were. None of them can match the iPad for total numbers sold yet but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a niche area that Apple was failing to exploit.
It all started with the Kindle Fire just over a year ago. The tablet was squarely aimed at a particular market, one that didn’t want to spend a lot on a tablet device and was happy to accept a lower end device in return. This proved to be wildly popular and as of this month Amazon has shipped over 7 million of the devices putting it second only the iPad itself in terms of sales. This in turn drew other companies to the small tablet form factor with the most notable recent addition being the Google Nexus 7 which as of writing has already sold an estimated 3 million units world wide. Apple can’t have been ignorant of this and saw that there was a rather large niche that they weren’t exploiting, hence the release of the iPad Mini.
For a company that’s been making and dominating markets for a decade now the iPad Mini then represents the first product Apple’s created as a reaction to market forces. Whilst we can always point to technology companies that did what did before they entered the market they’re usually no where near as successful. With the small tablet form factor sector however there are multiple companies who have managed to make quite a killing in this particular space prior to Apple entering. You could argue that Apple still owns the tablet space as a whole (and that’s true, to a point) but when it comes to form factors other than those of the traditional iPad Apple has been absent up until this week, and that’s lost money they’ll never recover.
Comparatively it’s a small slice of the overall tablet pie which Apple is still getting the lion’s share of. Even though they might’ve lost 10 million potential sales to a niche market they weren’t filling they still managed to ship 14 million iPads last quarter. Their figures for this quarter might be down on what people were expecting however with the release of the new iPad and the iPad Mini right before the holiday season it’s very likely that they’ll make up that shortfall without too much trouble. Whether that will translate into dominance of the smaller form factor tablet market is up for debate and realistically we’ll only know once next quarter’s results come in.
Whilst I don’t believe this is the beginning of the end for Apple it is the first product to come from them in a long time that, as far as I can tell, is a reaction to the market rather than them attempting to create one. That’s a very different Apple than the one we’re used to seeing and whilst it isn’t necessarily a bad thing (dominating semi-established markets seems to be their bread and butter) it does make you wonder if their focus has shifted away from market creation. I don’t really know enough to answer that but if you were still wondering what Apple under Tim Cook would look like then you might be seeing the beginnings of an answer here. Whether that’s good or not is an exercise I’ll leave for the reader.
Whilst Android has been making solid inroads to the tablet market, snapping up a respectable 26.8%, it’s still really Apple’s market with them holding a commanding lead that no one’s been able to come close to touching. It’s not for a lack of trying though with many big name companies attempting to break into the market only to pull out shortly afterwards, sometimes in blaze of fire sale glory. It doesn’t help matters much that every new tablet will be compared to the iPad thus ensuring every new tablet attempts to one up it in some way, usually keeping a price parity with the iPad but without the massive catalogue of apps that people have come to expect from Apple products.
Apple’s got a great game going here. All of their iDevice range essentially made the market that they’re in, grabbing enough fans and early adopters to ensure their market dominance for years to come. Competitors then attempt to mimic Apple’s success by copying the essential ideas and then attempting to innovate, fighting an uphill battle. Whilst they might eventually lose ground to the massive onslaught of competitors (like they have to Android) they’ll still be one of the top individual companies, if they’re not number 1. It’s this kind of market leading that makes Apple products so desirable to John Q. Public and the reason why so many companies are failing to steal their market share away.
Rumours have been circulating for a while now over Amazon releasing a low cost tablet of some description and of course everyone was wondering whether it would shape up to be the next “iPad killer”. Today we saw the announcement of the Kindle Fire: a 7-inch multi-touch tablet that’s heavily integrated with Amazon’s services and comes at the low low price of only $199.
As a tablet it’s something of an outsider. Foregoing the traditional 9 to 10 inch screen size for a smaller 7 inch display. The processor in it isn’t anything fantastic, being just a step up from the one that powers the Nook Color, but history has shown it’s quite a capable system so the Kindle Fire shouldn’t be a slouch when it comes to performance. There’s also a distinct lack of cameras, 3G and Bluetooth connectivity meaning that the sole connection this tablet has to the outside world will be via your local wifi connection. It comes with an internal 8GB of storage that’s not upgradeable, favouring to store everything on the cloud and download it as required. You can see why this thing wouldn’t work with WhisperNet.
Also absent is any indication that the Kindle Fire is actually an Android device with the operating system being given a total overhaul. The Google App store has been outright replaced by Amazon’s Android app store and the familiar tile interface has been replaced by a custom UI designed by Amazon. All of Amazon services: music, books and movies to name a few, are heavily integrated with the device. Indeed they are so heavily integrated that the tablet also comes with a free month of Amazon Prime, Amazon’s premium service that offers unlimited free 2 day shipping plus access to their entire catalogue of media. At this point calling this thing a tablet seems like a misnomer, it’s much more of a media consumption device.
What’s really intriguing about the Kindle Fire though is the browser that Amazon has developed for it called Silk. Like Opera Mini and Skyfire before it Silk offloads some of the heavy lifting to external servers, namely Amazon’s massive AWS infrastructure. There’s some smarts in the delineation between what should be processed on device and what should be done on the servers so hopefully dynamic pages, which suffered heavily in this kind of configuration, will run a lot better under Silk. Overall it sounds like a massive step up for the usability of the browser on devices like these which is sure to be a great selling point for the Kindle Fire.
The more I read about the Kindle Fire the more I get the feeling that Amazon has seen the game that Apple has been playing and decided to not get caught up in it like their competitors have. Instead of competing directly with the iPad et. al. they’ve created a device that’s heavily integrated with their own services and have put themselves at arms length with Android. John Q. Public then won’t see the Kindle Fire as an Android Tablet nor an iPad competitor, more it’s a cheap media consumption device that’s capable at doing other tasks from a large and reputable company. The price alone is enough to draw people in and whilst the margins on the device are probably razor thin they’ll more than likely make it up in media sales for the device. All those together make the Kindle Fire a force to be reckoned with, but I don’t think current tablet manufacturers have much to worry about.
The Kindle Fire, much like the iPad before it, carves out its own little niche that’s so far be unsuccessfully filled. It’s not a feature laden object of every geek’s affection, more it’s a tablet designed for the masses with a price that competitors will find hard to beat. The deep integration with Amazon’s services will be the feature that ensures the Kindle Fire’s success as that’s what every other iPad competitor has lacked. However there’ll still be a market for the larger, more capable tablets as they’re more appropriate for people seeking a replacement for their laptop rather than a beefed up media player. I probably won’t be buying one for myself, but I could easily see my parents using one of these.
And I’m sure that’s what Amazon is banking on too.