Though iPods, iPhones, and iPads have become exceptionally popular with consumers over the past 10 years, Apple has repeatedly been accused of leaving some prospective customers’ needs unfulfilled. Until today, we found that accusation somewhat hard to take seriously. Apple was clearly chasing mainstream users seeking simple, elegant solutions, while its rivals went after two different crowds: spec-focused early adopters and ultra-budget-conscious customers. Critics be damned, Apple’s strategy worked wonders, giving the once struggling company a 70% market share for the iPod and a reported 80% market share for the iPad, with a lower but still significant share of the comparatively huge smartphone market. It has become obvious—conventional wisdom, even—that competitors would need much better products or prices in order to challenge Apple’s devices.

Amazon’s just-announced $199 Kindle Fire appears to be the right product at the right price—a rival to both the iPad and the iPod touch, priced lower than either of them. Unlike Apple, which has suggested that its iPods and iPads need separate interfaces for different 3.5” and 9.7” screen experiences, Amazon’s 7” display splits the difference and sits in the middle, appealing to people who want a media player, reading device, and web browser that’s bigger than the iPod but smaller than the iPad. We’ve believed for years that such a device was worth producing, but Apple has gone out of its way to suggest otherwise, calling 7” devices “tweeners” and claiming that they won’t satisfy customers.

Regardless of whether Apple’s found the 7” form factor problematic, Amazon seems to have figured out exactly how to make it work—by streamlining its interface even further than the increasingly complex iPad and iPod touch, stripping out features and thereby the need for additional apps to make use of them. It’s essentially what the iPod touch would have been if Apple had focused largely on polishing its media playback capabilities, rather than transforming it into a miniature computer, or “training wheels for the iPhone,” as Apple once put it. Kindle Fire is focused on video, music, magazines, books, and web browsing functionality, with secondary support for games and apps. The interface puts the focus squarely on passively-consumed content, rather than interactive software, though the hardware can accommodate both.

 

Retina Display sharpness aside, spec fiends will appreciate that the anti-reflective IPS screen crams more pixels than an iPod touch or iPhone 4 into a much smaller enclosure than the iPad. Kindle Fire compromises a little on battery life, promising 7.5 to 8 hours for video playback and book reading, but delivers a lighter device that’s easier to hold for extended periods of time. And in a knife-twisting retort to Apple’s pledge to stand on the Kindle’s shoulders with (read: clone) the iPad’s iBooks and the iBookstore, Amazon cheekily noted—complete with an Apple USB cord as a visual—that unlike the iPad, Kindle Fire has no need to synchronize with a computer, as all of its content is stored in and accessed from Amazon’s cloud servers. These servers have notably been up and running for longer than Apple’s have been in beta testing. Additionally, Amazon has built a streaming video service of its own, and is shipping Kindle Fires pre-customized with the user’s already-purchased content. While there’s little doubt that Apple will eventually do the same things, Amazon’s not waiting for that to happen. Nor is it seemingly concerned with what Kindle Fire can’t do, such as wirelessly broadcast videos to televisions or dock with a hundred different speaker systems. Apple wasn’t worried about these things last year when it shipped the first iPad, either.

Amazon is also making the most of Apple’s recently problematic relationships with magazine and book publishers. Believing that the iPad was going to be the only tablet on the block for the foreseeable future, Apple dictated onerous subscription terms to companies that were accustomed to managing their own customer relationships and keeping a greater percentage of their sales. Many publishers protested, and some rebelled, building iPad-independent versions of their publications; Amazon subsequently reached out to them to create Kindle Fire-ready versions, too. It’s unclear whether Amazon will ever build the sort of stable that Apple’s App Store Newsstand is currently developing, but if the prior Kindles are any indication, the answer will be “yes” sooner rather than later.

 

Over the last few years, Apple’s “our way or the highway” philosophy has worked better than most people would initially have guessed—mostly because the other road has been more dangerous to travel. With Kindle Fire, Amazon has created an alternative that out-Apples Cupertino by offering end-to-end user experience simplicity, a small and light form factor, and a combination of features at pricing that Apple is highly unlikely to match. This holiday season, if you want to buy a 3.5” or 9.7” screened device, Apple will have you covered. If you want something in the middle at an aggressive price—and don’t care about all of Apple’s frills—Kindle Fire is going to have the market almost all to itself. Two of our editors have already pre-ordered Kindle Fires, and unless Apple releases a directly comparable device, we wouldn’t be surprised if many other long-time iPod fans did the same.