In just a few hours time, Amazon is expected to reveal its latest Kindle model, the Kindle Fire, a tablety-take on what the megaretailer thinks will claw iPad buyers away from Apple's clutches. To do that, it's reportedly readying every aspect of its not-inconsiderable might: multimedia, cloud storage, and the ability to squeeze margins out of content rights-holders like juice from a blood orange. Don't let the Kindle part of the name fool you, however; if you're the avid reader that has so far been Amazon's target customer, the Kindle Fire isn't the product for you.
On the face of it, the Kindle Fire should deliver the existing Kindle experience but with bells on. Not just ebooks (and some half-hearted audio playback, if you can be bothered to load a handful of MP3s onto the limited internal storage, as well as rudimentary web access) but the full internet, streaming video with whispers of Amazon Prime bundled content, fulsome music access and the reassuring caverns of cloud storage to not only hold all your documents and media but give you access to it on the move.
To achieve all that, we're expecting that Amazon has had to make more than a few compromises. Not just the relatively tiny onboard storage - tipped to be in the region of 6GB - that helps keep costs down, or the whispers of slower processors after the faster chips Amazon originally wanted caused untold headaches, but some altogether more fundamental changes that signify how little the Fire is aimed at ebook readers.
Biggest will be the screen. So far, Amazon has stuck with e-paper screens from E Ink, replicating the experience of a traditional paper book but in a digital device. Critics - many of whom were particularly vocal when the first iPad was revealed - point to e-paper's relatively sluggish refresh rate in comparison to LCD, the fact that it's greyscale and can't support video.
It's e-paper that makes the Kindle so superb for readers, however. With no backlight there's less eye-strain involved; there are also suggestions that using backlit devices before you go to sleep can mess with your body-rhythms, in short that staring at, say, an iPad display to pass time while you're trying to nod off could be counter-productive. E Ink panels can also be easily read outdoors, even in direct sunlight, when LCD displays require increasingly strong backlighting to counter ambient light levels.
Then there's portability. Amazon reportedly took the BlackBerry PlayBook as a template, with ODM partner Quanta using the work it had done on RIM's slate to fast-track the Kindle Fire's development. Now, the PlayBook is a reasonably compact tablet - 0.4-inches thick, in fact - and only a little thicker than the current third-gen Kindle, at 0.34-inches, but it's considerably heavier at over 14-oz versus the Kindle's 8.7-oz. When you're trying to replicate the minimal heft of a paperback (for users who, say, are trying to hold their ereader one-handed above their head, lying in bed) those ounces can make a big difference.
The Kindle Fire will offer plenty to make up for some of that ebook-centric shortfall. Amazon Prime - with its existing streaming video, but also the rumored library-style ebook loans - is likely to be a big draw for the multimedia obsessed. Amazon expects to set its Fire underneath Apple's iTunes and iBookstore monoliths, broadening its range and - as recent research has suggested is the case - cashing in on the increased tendency of tablet users to make impromptu purchases. As someone who turns to his Kindle for the focused joy of reading, however, it's looking more and more likely that the Kindle Fire won't be for me.
SlashGear will be covering the Amazon Kindle event from NYC this morning, so stand by for all the news as it's announced!