Amazon v. B&N and The Battle of the Cheap Tablets

When Apple released their iPad, it was a big deal. It was sleek, it was cool, and it was relatively inexpensive. I say relatively, and I stress relatively because that’s what it was — compared to Apple’s other portable devices at the time, at just $500 for the base model it was a steal.

And then the iPad 2 was released, and it was a really big deal. People loved it. It was awesome. It did everything that everyone could have ever wanted outside of making them a sandwich or walking their dog.

And then other companies, like Samsung, for example, tried to release competing tablets. And, for the most part, they sucked. They provided people with substandard user experiences running over clunky UIs, and they seemed tacky and cheap in comparison to the iPad. Few people loved them, and it wasn’t very awesome, and while it certainly did things that most people wanted, it wasn’t very fun.

But people were content with their iPad. And then eventually someone realized that, “Hey, the iPad, for what it does,it  is kind of expensive. What if, instead of trying to compete with the iPad, with came out with something that tried to do a lot of the same things, but was a lot cheaper? And what if we pulled that off without completely compromising the user experience?”

Seemingly with that question in mind, the engineers at Amazon approached — or attacked, rather — the tablet market. They set out to create an extremely affordable device that would provide an excellent tablet experience to those users who weren’t necessarily willing to shell out 5-hundo for the iPad.

First Came Fire

And then bam, in mid-September, with the unveiling of the Kindle Fire, Amazon showed the world that they were plenty serious about creating a truly competitive and affordable tablet for the masses. Something that was cheap, but still plenty usable. A tablet that wasn’t cheap because it sucked, but because Amazon had figured out a way to make a good tablet experience at an inexpensive price point.

Amazon, at the time, looked like the golden child of the tablet world. While other companies were trying to compete with Apple, Amazon decided it would probably be smarter and far more productive to go after a market that Apple wasn’t really competing in. That lasted for a while, but the Kindle wasn’t slated for release until the 15th of November, so it was still a ways off.

Then Came The Nook

And then came Barnes & Noble. And with the announcement of their Nook Tablet, the battle of the cheap tablets began. At $250, it seemed more than capable spec-wise, and an excellent competitor to the Kindle Fire. Additionally, Barnes & Noble’s pledge that customers with Nook Tablets will be able to receive free support in Barnes & Noble retail stores for their tablet device made that device even more alluring.

But neither of these devices have been released yet. And ultimately, there is no telling which of them will be the champion in the battle of the cheap tablets. And there’s also no telling if either of them will actually be a success. Will customers flock to the Kindle Fire’s insanely fluid user-interface and Amazon cloud support, or to the Nook’s more than capable specifications and in-store spport? Will customers buy these tablets at all?

Certainly, by the end of the holiday season, we will have the answers to those questions.

But in the meantime, Apple is over there, standing on top of a huge mountain of cash which has been generated by the millions of sales of their iPads and iPhones. Will they, too, release a competing cheap tablet? There have been rumors of such a device, but nothing has actually been revealed by Apple as of yet.

And then there’s the question of whether or not competing in that market actually matters. Already, Apple is doing extraordinarily well without competing in the cheap tablet market. And Amazon and Barnes & Noble, despite their intentions to release a cheap tablet in the next few weeks, haven’t seen any real success just yet. They haven’t yet proven that such a market actually exists.

But maybe they will prove that there is a market for the cheap tablet.  Maybe is unfortunately the best answer I can give right now simply because I haven’t seen much. Pre-sales figures haven’t done much to convince me.

But at the same time, it seems that one of these tablets is destined to succeed. Why? Because the world needs a good, cheap tablet. The iPad is fantastic, but it’s certainly not cheap. Most other cheap tablets are definitely cheap, but they aren’t very good. That’s why Amazon and Barnes & Noble are perfectly positioned to make a significant dent in a tablet market that all but exists. Whereas Apple focuses on high-quality, expensive goods in order to breed success, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are focusing on the opposite approach.

Will it work? Only time will tell. And although I’m wagering yes, I’m also cautiously bracing myself for failure.