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Amazon's Fire Will Burn Tablet Foes, And Smartphones Are Next

Right after Amazon introduced its Kindle Fire, I heard a reporter question whether the device is a true tablet. Because it's primarily a vehicle for consuming Amazon content, she wanted to put the Fire in the same "other" category as the Nook Color. Another journalist lamented the lack of a camera. They're missing the point. Amazon will sell millions of Kindle Fires—and make many shoppers think twice about the iPad—because it delivers what consumers want at a jaw-dropping $199 price.

But price is only part of the story. Amazon managed to do something the iPad competition has not: innovate. And I'm willing to bet that it won't be too long before that innovation extends to smartphones.

But let's talk tablets first. There are tons of slates in the $200 to $300 range available now or coming soon from the likes of Acer, Coby, Pandigital, and ViewSonic. Some of these devices run Android, but they all merely riff on the same formula. The Kindle Fire is based on Gingerbread, but it looks nothing like Google's software. Amazon deserves a lot of credit for being willing to start with a clean (ahem) slate.

The main screen puts content front and center with a slick carousel-like interface that automatically displays the last thing you read, viewed, listened to, or played right on top. There's no need to push a Recent Apps button or press and hold the Home button. It's just there. You can also store apps and other content on a virtual bookshelf for easy access.

Of course, Amazon has a lot of incentive to remake Android in its own image. The company wants to sell lots of Amazon content, from music and books to magazines and videos. That's why the rest of the main screen is dominated by shortcuts to things that will cost consumers more money.

Yes, Samsung and HTC offer their own multimedia storefronts, but only Amazon has millions of accounts already on file. And just like the original Kindle, the Fire will ship to customers with their credentials pre-loaded. There's nothing to set up.

The most innovative part of the Fire is its Silk web browser, which accelerates surfing by leveraging Amazon's sea of servers. A unique split architecture balances the workload between the cloud and the device, which should dramatically improve load times and hopefully make Flash palatable on a mobile device. The Silk web browser probably took a lot of money to create, and I highly doubt Amazon made that investment just to make a Wi-Fi-only tablet better. After all, home and office networks are pretty fast.

Wouldn't Silk be more valuable on a smartphone? Yup.

Now, it's certainly possible that Amazon is working on a 3G version of the Kindle Fire tablet, one whose data could possibly be subsidized by Special Offers (ads). But Silk would be even more welcome on a smartphone; the browser's efficiency could even help you save on your data plan.

Lest we forget, Amazon is already one of the leading online smartphone retailers, offering handsets from all the major carriers. I envision Amazon launching a smartphone by the middle of next year after the company introduces its larger 10-inch tablet. Lets call it the Spark.

To be clear, Amazon's clout alone won't be enough to make the Spark a hit. The company will need to figure out how to integrate communications and social networking more tightly into its new platform. The ingredients might be there now, but I haven’t seen them yet. Or maybe Amazon will buy webOS, as has been rumored, as a shortcut.

In the tablet arena, Amazon is sticking to the low end of the market, leaving Apple to dominate the high end. But there's every reason to believe that the company's simple, stripped-down product will allow it become the number two tablet maker quickly, leaving everyone else scrambling for share. A Kindle Spark would do just as much—if not even more—damage.

The Kindle made Amazon a force in mobile, but the Fire and its offspring are the biggest threat to the established players since the original iPhone.