Analysts consider the notion that Amazon.com could build an Android tablet to compete with Apple's iPad 2 at a time when the Motorola Xoom, RIM PlayBook and HP TouchPad may struggle.
Analysts believe it's not outside the realm of possibility for the e-commerce giant, which finds it lush e-book business challenged by sales of Apple's iBooks, which recently crossed 100 million downloads on the iPad and other iOS devices.
Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps started the conversation with a March 10 blog post, in which she noted that the Motorola Xoom, HP TouchPad and RIM PlayBook can't threaten the new iPad 2 because they are too expensive and can't compete with the Apple Store channel.
Epps polled consumers and found the carrier-subsidy model leverage by those tablet makers is unappealing to consumers. Most people prefer going into an Apple retail store than shopping for tablets or smartphones in a carrier outlet.
"Compare the experience of walking into an Apple Store, where the iPad is front and center, to walking into a Verizon store where the Samsung Galaxy Tab is collecting dust at the back of the store and the sales reps don't quite know what to make of it," Epps wrote.
Amazon.com, by contrast, could create an Android- or Linux-based tablet to connect users to Amazon's storefront, including its forthcoming Android App Store, said Epps. Users would have access to the Amazon Prime free shipping and Instant Video service; the company's recommendation engine for books, music and other goods; and one-click purchasing.
Epps' peers had different takes on the value proposition of Amazon.com boldly challenging the iPad, whose first version defined the market by selling 15 million units and whose iPad 2 has drawn huge lines across the country March 11.
Industry analyst Jack Gold acknowledged Amazon.com's brand recognition and ability to sell products but said the price of the device would be key. Apple has set the bar with $499 pricing for its base WiFi version and $629 for its base WiFi+3G version.
"A Kindle-Android device could prove popular, building on the large installed base of Kindle users. And Amazon clearly has the largest 'store' out there (bigger than the iTunes/app store world), so that could be a swaying factor if they got aggressive with offering special deals on their own device," Gold said.
However, he cautioned that with all the other tablets coming to market in the next few months, an Amazon.com tablet might get lost in the hype-field.
Industry analyst Rob Enderle agreed with Epps that if any brand is going to bring competition to Apple's tablet, Amazon.com has the best chance. He said Apple's edge is less the device and more the services it connects into to get music, media and applications.
"In effect it is that the Apple 'store' is their big differentiator," Enderle said. "This would suggest that someone that was even a better expert at being an online retailer would have the best skills to challenge Apple. Amazon has that skill set so I agree, if a real competitor is ever to emerge it likely will come from the service side of the solution, and Amazon fits that bill nicely."
Gartner analyst Van Baker isn't buying it, telling eWEEK Amazon's interest is in the reader market because it supplements its book selling business.
"It is more likely that Amazon will make the Kindle free to Amazon Prime subscribers and then make their money selling ebooks rather than introduce a full-featured tablet," Baker said. "They don't have an app store yet and admittedly that could change things, but for now I just don't think this makes sense."
The potential is interesting no doubt. If Amazon.com were to bring an Android tablet to market, it would both give the e-tailer another weapon with which to challenge Apple and give Google a more powerful vehicle with which to drive its operating system in the market Apple is trying to sustain success.
By Carl W. Brooks