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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

September 28, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Amazon’s new Kindles: $199 Fire, $99 Touch, $79 starter

NEW YORK — The rumors were close to correct: Amazon.com is indeed launching a color, touch-screen version of the Kindle that it’s calling the “Kindle Fire.”

The first version of the new $199 tablet computing device has a 7-inch diagonal screen and is based on Google’s Android operating system, with a new interface created by Amazon and pointing toward the company’s online services. A highlight is a new browser linked to Amazon’s EC2 cloud computing service.

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Amazon announced details at a press event in New York. Chief Executive Jeff Bezos began the event by displaying quotes from skeptics about the first Kindle that launched four years ago.

“The question is why is Kindle working, why is this working?” he said. “I believe it’s because Kindle is an end-to-end service and I believe it is because we have been inventing and improving that service at a rapid pace for the last four years.”

Although the devices get the most attention, Bezos emphasized the services and software behind the Kindles, which are largely consoles to access online books and other content sold and stored by the Seattle-based e-commerce giant.

In advance of the Fire’s release, Amazon has been increasing the number of movies and TV shows available for streaming from its site. It also launched a music service for storing and streaming users’ music from its servers.

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The video streaming is free with Amazon’s $79 per year Prime service. A 30-day free trial of Prime is included with the Fire.

The Fire (at left) is 7.5 inches by 4.7 inches, and 0.45 inches thick. It weighs 14.6 ounces and has a 1024 x 600 pixel display.

Amazon simultaneously is updating its Kindle lineup with touchscreen models and a $79 entry level model that’s likely to be a big seller this holiday season.

The first new device Bezos revealed is a new $99 Kindle with an infrared touchscreen — the Kindle Touch. A version with 3G wireless will be $149.

Pre-orders of the Kindle e-book devices are possible today and the touch models will ship Nov. 21. The new $79 model begins shipping today.

“We’re going to sell many millions of these,” Bezos said.

The new $79 model doesn’t have a touchscreen but it’s lighter than the current Kindles, weighing just under 6 ounces.

The Fire goes on sale Nov. 15 and will have access to more than 100,000 movies and TV shows and 17 million songs available via Amazon. Bezos said Amazon is producing “millions” of units but hinted that they’re likely to sell out this holiday season.

Its homescreen looks like a bookshelf, on which recently used books, movies and albums are displayed. It also shows icons for recently used apps, which are available from the Android app store that Amazon runs.

The device has a dual-core Texas Instruments processor, which Bezos demonstrated by playing the game “Fruit Ninja” during the demonstration. Inside it has 8 gigabytes of storage capacity.

There are no ports or memory card slots other than a USB port.

Amazon’s Whispersync technology, which keeps track of where you are in a book, is being extended to its video service, so you can start a movie on the Fire and resume playing at the same point on a TV connected to Amazon Video.

The Fire can be used for sending email, and each device has its own email address assigned by Amazon.

But the biggest advance in the Fire may be Amazon’s new “Silk” browser (shown here) used on the device. Amazon describes it as a “split” browser that runs partly on the device and partly on its cloud computing network.

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The company is indexing commonly used images and files from the Web and storing them on its EC2 network, so they load faster on the browser and improve its performance. The system also anticipates the next page users are likely to view so it loads faster on the device.

The browser supports Flash as well as HTML5.

Given the big investment Amazon’s making in the browser technology it seems likely that it will be extended to other devices beyond the Fire, similar to the way the Kindle reading software was extended from Amazon’s device to most computing platforms.

“Stay tuned,” said Jon Jenkins, director of Amazon Silk.

Amazon also is rolling out its advertising offers program across the Kindle line, except for the Fire, so they display offers on their homescreen when idle.

The prices listed above are for devices “with offers.” Amazon will offer versions without the ad system for higher prices. The ad-free version of the basic Kindle is $109 — instead of $79. The Kindle Touch without ads will cost $139 and the 3G Kindle Touch without ads will cost $189.

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Here’s Dave Limp, vice president of Amazon Kindle, at the press event:

Here’s the Fire alongside the new Kindles:

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