Elgan: Here comes Amazon's 'Kindle for movies'

I predict that Amazon will ship a video tablet that will do for movies what the Kindle did for books

I believe that Amazon.com is working on a killer product. Call it the Kindle for movies -- an easy-to-use information appliance optimized for buying, downloading and watching super-high-quality, very low-cost movies.

Right now, Netflix dominates movie downloads, but the quality of those downloadable movies is low and the selection is poor. Apple movie downloads are high quality but expensive. And Google is trying to turn YouTube into a Netflix alternative.

The cable providers have utterly failed to offer customers usable interfaces to access TV and movies on demand.

Only Amazon looks ready to give consumers what they really want: a movie appliance -- a Kindle for movies.

I think super-easy, high-quality movies at low cost is a compelling combination to dominate the future of movies-on-demand.

Rumor and speculation

A believable rumor posted on the Boy Genius Report suggests that Amazon plans to ship not one but two Android tablets this year: a cheaper Nvidia Tegra 2-powered tablet code-named Coyote, and a powerful tablet code-named Hollywood that's based on the quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3. Both these systems consume very little power, for better battery life.

The Tegra 3 "system on a chip" has some very suggestive features. First, it will be massively fast with graphics -- far faster than any current tablet technology on the market. It supports display resolutions up to 1920 x 1200. (The iPad's screen resolution is 1024 x 768.) That's Blu-ray-quality video on a tablet!

Also note Amazon's very unsubtle code name: "Hollywood," as in the town Amazon intends to take control of.

Yes, the tablets will be Android devices capable of running all the usual apps. But Amazon is smart enough to avoid the mistakes of most other Android tablet makers so far, which is to position and market a tablet as an all-purpose everything device.

I think Amazon will sell it as the ultimate movie and video appliance and, oh yeah, it also does everything else.

These tablets will almost certainly run Google's Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android. Because this new Android is designed to run devices of any size, we can't know yet how big Amazon's tablets will be. That means Hollywood could be a big tablet -- big enough to become the world's biggest-screen mobile TV and movie player. I'm thinking 13 inches or more (compared with iPad's 9.7-in. screen).

A new generation of screens has emerged on the market since the iPad first launched. Some of these include high-resolution "transflective" screens, which use ambient light when there's plenty of it -- say, in direct sunlight -- and battery-powered light when needed. Amazon has built entire advertising campaigns around iPads' poor screen visibility in bright light, so it seems likely that the company will take advantage of the new screen technology.

That means one or both of these tablets might offer high-quality viewing in all conditions, from inside a dark bedroom to outside on a sunny day.

Amazon will probably make sure the price of the tablet itself is low -- say, $249 or so for Coyote -- and a Hollywood tablet that's as inexpensive or even cheaper than the iPad -- $499 or less.

I'll speculate even further: Movie tablet customers could be offered Amazon's existing Prime Instant Video service, which gives users unlimited movie downloads for $79 per year.

If these movies are Blu-ray quality, and if Amazon improves its selection of TV shows, forget it -- $79 is a steal.

But wait! There's (possibly) more! Kindle killed the competition in part because Amazon made the e-reader wireless like an appliance should be wireless -- the connectivity was "just there." No billing. No hassles. I can see Amazon throwing in 3G connectivity for the price of the movie rental service.

Also, it's likely that Amazon's Kindle-for-movies tablet will have an HDMI port so you can plug it into your big-screen, high-def TV -- and cancel your cable subscription.

Many consumers pay for both cable and Netflix. Amazon could replace both and improve the movie-watching experience.

Why I think Amazon can do this

I have covered technology for 20 years and have never seen product dominance like the Apple iPad's. More than 13 months after Apple shipped the first iPad, not a single viable competitor has emerged.

Sure, there are lots of tablets on the market. But the devices from rivals Google, Hewlett-Packard and Research In Motion feel like PCs rather than appliances. PCs have to be managed. It's hard to find things on them. They offer a hundred ways to do everything.

Appliances, on the other hand, are maintenance-free. Content and apps just appear with a click. Novice users never feel lost or confused.

The only other major tablet-size product on the market that feels like an appliance is Amazon's Kindle e-book reader.

Amazon surprised everyone, including me, with its ability to design, build and sell a true content appliance -- then market it with focus. It's been offered front and center on the Amazon.com home page every day since its launch.

I also think it's unlikely that a company like Amazon, which has only one line of tightly focused hardware appliances, would choose to jump into the low-margin generic Android tablet market for no reason. Like the Kindle, an Android tablet would be a means to an end, and that end would be the end of Netflix's dominance in movie downloads.

Amazon knows how to design, build and market a true consumer information appliance. The rumored hardware specs support the idea of a Kindle for movies. Amazon's got the movie-downloads rental business. It's got music. It's got the best Android app store. It's also got the wireless carrier relationships.

Oh, and it's also got a few books you can download.

I think the stars are aligned for Amazon to come out with something millions of consumers are going to want: a high-quality, low-cost tablet appliance for watching movies.

Correction: This column has been changed to correct that Google is the developer of the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android. It also corrects the pricing of the Amazon Prime Instant Video service to $79 per year from $79 per month.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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