just introduced a new seven-inch tablet called the Kindle Fire. It’s got a smaller screen than the Apple iPad 2, less storage and no cameras, and it can’t do 3G.

But I think it just changed the whole tablet game.

In New York on Wednesday, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos took to the stage and presented a slew of new mobile devices for consumers with prices so eye-poppingly low that even some analysts who follow the market were shocked. In addition to the $199 Kindle Fire, Bezos also unveiled a $99 touch-screen e-reader called the Kindle Touch and a a $79 non-touch Kindle. In setting the price point of these devices so low, Bezos was laying out out how he views the future of Amazon. And that future is all about content.

Before I get to the content, let me tell you a little bit about the device that this stuff will live on. The Kindle Fire is a small, sleek tablet that looks a lot like Research in Motion’s BlackBerry PlayBook. It has a dual-core CPU (which should help keep its performance on pace with most of its competitors), a bright multi-touch LCD display and 8GB of on-board storage. In comparison to the iPad and most recent Android tablets, it’s a weaker product from a hardware perspective.

On the other hand, Amazon has radically altered Google’s Android operating system, creating a smooth, simple user interface that looks and feels more polished than that of most Android tablets on the market. Your books, music and movies are kept in a big carousel on the home screen that you can page through like Apple’s “Cover Flow” for music on the iPod, and you can stick favorite apps in a row along the bottom of the screen. It looks kind of like a virtual bookshelf, and most people wouldn’t recognize this as any version of Android they’ve seen before.

The company has also equipped the Fire with a homegrown Web browser called Silk. The company claims the new browser speeds up Web page load times by pre-processing information and images on Amazon’s cloud servers and can even do things such as predict the next page you’ll visit based on the previous actions of all users. That’s pretty futuristic stuff.

But the announcement today wasn’t so much about the hardware or the software as it was about content and services. Amazon’s message to the market and users at the event was all about the company’s transformation from bookseller and retailer to purveyor and host of rich multimedia content. The announcement was paired with news of partnerships between Amazon and Conde Nast, Fox and DC Comics, and cheerleading about the company’s vast movie, music and TV offerings, not to mention its Android application store, called Appstore.

And that content — combined with a price point $300 lower than the least expensive iPad — sets the stage for a major disruption in this space.

Just a few weeks ago, we saw near mass hysteria over the price cut of HP’s discontinued TouchPad. When the $499 tablet went to $99 during a fire sale, stores couldn’t keep them in stock. And that was for a discontinued product. As consumers realize they can have most of what Apple and Android competitors are offering for less than half the price, it will cause a strong reaction.

For software developers, Amazon also provides a tantalizing mixture of retail know-how and automatic audience exposure. It doesn’t take a wild imagination to picture a future where it’s more lucrative to code your software strictly for the Fire and Amazon’s Appstore than for the plethora of Android tablets sitting unwanted on store shelves. Google and its partners have failed to catalyze developers and buyers, but Amazon just might stand a chance.

That’s not to say that Amazon doesn’t have a long battle ahead of it. Android tablets in general have failed to spark any real interest in the market, and the Fire stands to be left behind as the Android software matures since the device won’t be a target for regular updates from Google.

It’s also true that Amazon hasn’t shown the Fire to be capable of much beyond content consumption and game playing. That’s fine for casual users, but for those looking to replace a full-fledged laptop or even a netbook, this probably isn’t the device they need.

Still, Amazon has a proven track record of outdoing expectations and predicting what consumers want. A tablet at this price point — coupled with packages such as the company’s Prime service, which offers cheap or free deliveries along with access to lots of free streaming content — is a heady mixture.

When the device begins shipping on Nov. 15, it’s easy to see how the Kindle Fire could give consumers an alternative to the iPad that’s really worth considering. It’s a tablet that has the potential to be as vital and as desirable as any Apple product, but with a much lower price tag. Will it slow Apple’s sales? Maybe not, but for the first time since the launch of the original iPad, I think Apple has a reason to start worrying.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge, a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and former editor in chief of Engadget.


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