The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon will be releasing a $50 tablet “in time for the holidays”.
Multiple tech sites are picking up on the story and asking the question “Would you buy a $50 tablet?” I think that’s the wrong question. The right question is “Would you buy a $50 tablet from Amazon?”
Let’s talk about that a bit.
This is Amazon, the company that is perfectly willing to take a loss on hardware because they know they can make up for it in software. In the case of tablets, that “software” isn’t apps, it’s books, movies, and music. As best I can tell (keeping in mind that I don’t own an Amazon device), each new version of their customized version of Android makes it just a little harder to bring your own media in from outside the Amazon ecosystem. I don’t see the version they ship on this new tablet being any exception to that rule.
Then there’s the tablet itself. The WSJ says it’s going to have a six-inch screen. That’s phablet territory, and a size that manufacturers have concluded doesn’t work for tablets. Heck, it’s getting harder and harder to find seven-inch tablets (my preferred size) outside the bargain bin. That aside, the media experience on a six-inch screen isn’t great. Music is OK–as millions of iPod users will tell you, a screen isn’t really necessary for a purely-audio experience–but video is iffy. Even on a seven-inch screen, video is eye-squintingly small; as best I can tell from forum comments, video is the main driver in making phablets ever-larger. As for books, for all but those with excellent vision, a six-inch screen will mean either tiny print, or frequent page turns. Neither is a desirable user experience.
So would you buy a $50 tablet strictly for audio? Would it change your opinion if you knew that it only had a single monophonic speaker? Mono isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for an audio device–witness the popularity of Sonos’ Play:One and Play:Three devices, both of which are monophonic. But the Sonos gadgets have much higher-quality speakers than anything that could fit in a tablet, even one selling for significantly more than $50, and they also offer the option of pairing two speakers for stereo. It seems unlikely that Amazon’s cheapie tablet would have a similar pairing capability.
One possibility would be that Amazon will position the tablet not so much for its own multimedia capabilities, but more as a glorified remote control for the Fire TV set-top box. But if you don’t already have a Fire TV, that’s another $40 on top of the $50 for the tablet. $90 is squarely in the same range as a Roku box or even an Apple TV–and Apple is expected to announce a new, more powerful version of the Apple TV tomorrow.
I don’t really see a market for Amazon’s little Fire tablet. Unless they have something really spectacular up their sleeve–and, based on the damp thud their Fire Phone made when it hit last year, I don’t think they do–I think the $50 tablet is going to be more of a wet match than a blowtorch when it comes to igniting sales.