Amazon.com announced six new tablets and e-readers on Wednesday, the latest sign that the Web retailer is trying to reach consumers through devices where it can sell more books, movies and TV shows.
The tech giant said it is introducing two new e-readers, two new updates to the Kindle Fire tablet line, a kid-focused version of the Kindle Fire and a new tablet for power-users. All are available for pre-order starting Wednesday; Amazon said the devices should make their way to consumers sometime in October.
Amazon showed little interest in the device market for years, focusing almost entirely on the Kindle e-reader which it first introduced in 2007 as a vehicle to sell e-books. But since launching the Kindle Fire tablet in 2011, Amazon has moved aggressively to compete with firms such as Apple, Samsung, Google and Microsoft in the tablet market and to complement its ambitious, multimillion-dollar expansion in the media world.
Dave Limp, vice president of the company's Kindle unit, said the company's recent push into hardware doesn't come from a desire to be a device company. Amazon is, after all, what Limp calls a "content-forward" company -- it sells its tablets and e-readers at break-even prices, and then makes money on the videos, apps, books and games that consumers buy from Amazon through them.
"The most important thing is when someone picks one of our devices, it has to be almost immediately clear why it's different," he said. And in most cases, he said, that comes from building less expensive gadgets that take full advantage of Amazon's own software and services.
The strategy hasn't always worked. In June, Amazon jumped into the smartphone market with the Fire Phone, a sensor-laden smartphone designed to give users direct access to Amazon's online store. Just six weeks later, the firm slashed the phone's price from $200 to 99 cents; Amazon hasn't released official sales numbers for the phone, but many analysts say the cut was due to lackluster sales.
Still, Amazon isn't straying from its well-worn formula with these new devices. With a new kid-focused version of the Kindle Fire tablet -- for children ages 3 to 10 -- Amazon is also including a year's subscription to its Kindle FreeTime Unlimited service. That service, which is normally a $30 per year add-on to the company's Prime service, gives parents and children unlimited access to hand-picked apps, games and videos made for kids.
Amazon, whose chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post, remains bullish on e-readers, even though the market may have peaked already in 2012. Limp called e-readers one of the company's "passions." The latest addition to the line is the Kindle Voyage, a six-inch e-reader with a lighted e-ink screen and pressure-sensitive sensors that let you squeeze to advance or go back a page. Amazon is also releasing a lower-end, basic e-reader without a light, starting at $79, which offers twice as much storage as Amazon's previous entry-level Kindle. The company also unveiled a new six-inch Fire tablet, which starts at $99, and comes in five colors. A 7-inch version of the tablet starts at $139. Both boast clear sound, fast processors and crisp displays that are very rare to see at that price.
Despite its obsession with low prices, Amazon also released a new high-end tablet, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 , which starts at $379. The device, a competitor to Apple's iPad and Samsung's premium Galaxy tablets, has advanced processors, a clearer screen and speakers with Dolby designed surround sound. The new HDX is also designed to work with a new Fire keyboard from Amazon, sold separately for about $60, so that users can use the tablet more effectively for spreadsheets and other work documents.
That's a bit of a shift for Amazon tablets, which have always been marketed more as devices to consume content rather than create it. Limp said that the shift was driven by customer use.
"We have seen a trend, generation on generation, that people are using them more for productivity use cases," he said. "As you start seeing customer input like that, you want to encourage it -- throw kindling on that fire, if you will."
Amazon may build a business-focused tablet down the road, he said. The company has been slowly adding features suited to workplace devices, such as encryption. "Will it take a long time? Yes," Limp said. "But we have to get the building blocks, and keep making progress. And the early signs are good."