SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Amazon is applying the heat to Apple and Google.
Days ahead of an Apple press gathering, Amazon's evolution as a hardware maker picked up steam Thursday when it unveiled an array of new Kindle electronic readers and tablets, all built around Amazon's rich ecosystem of books, movies and other content. The company's moves launch a key strike against its most formidable competitors.
Starting at $199, Amazon added three new Kindle Fire HD tablets to the 7-inch Kindle Fire it began selling in the U.S. last November. Among the new high-definition models is an 8.9-inch version that taps into speedy 4G LTE cellular technology at a potentially disruptive $499 price, plus $49.99 for a yearly data plan. IPads with 4G cellular capabilities start at $629 before a data plan.
Amazon also introduced the new $119 Kindle Paperwhite e-reader device with exceptionally sharp screen, a light that lets you read in bed without disturbing your partner, and a clever feature that even detects how fast you are reading. Amazon claims a battery that can last up to two months, even with the light on (you can't actually turn it off).
Barnes & Noble had beaten Amazon to market with a standard e-reader with built-in lighting technology when it started selling the Nook with GlowLight earlier this year. Another rival, Kobo, has just unveiled a reader with an integrated light.
Amazon says its goal remains getting customers to buy more content from its online stores. But the online retailer is doubling down on its devices in hopes that customers consider them before buying an iPad or Google Nexus 7.
"I want our devices to be services and not gadgets," Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says. "We want to have the best ecosystem of content. The hardware device is a crucial component. You do need the best Wi-Fi, the very fast processor, graphics engine and gorgeous display. All those things are part of the service. But you can't stop there," Bezos said in an interview following a press event in an airplane hangar here.
Bezos emphasized that the company's Kindle tablets will offer unique user experiences even though they use the underlying Android mobile operating system -- from Google -- that is installed in competitors' products. "We treat Android a bit like Linux. It's a starting point," Bezos says.
During the interview, Bezos wouldn't comment on the possibility that Amazon might challenge Apple on another front: smartphones. "It's just premature to say anything about that."
However, the company's tablet lineup likely will put pressure on Apple, which has loyal customers but whose relatively high prices have left an opening for rivals to attract consumers with cheaper but similar-enough alternatives.
IPads start at $499 for Wi-Fi models. Though Apple hasn't said so, it is expected to introduce a smaller iPad soon. What such a device might cost remains to be seen, but it would come when customers are looking to buy devices with 7-inch screens priced at or below $200. "We may have just seen Amazon steal the market from Apple," says tech analyst Rob Enderle. "Waiting until next month to launch the iPad Mini looks stupid."
But Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey says, "Apple is not in position to run scared because of this. They have such a lead in tablets overall. What they have to do is reflect this in their products. I think they will have to make iPad Mini competitive pricing-wise."
With Amazon's low-end tablets starting at $159, Bezos said, the devices aren't meant to be profit-drivers but rather conduits for online sales of digital books, songs, games and videos.
Amazon's library contains 120,000 movies and TV episodes and 100,000 audio books. " What we want to do is make a little bit of money when we sell the device but make most of the money when people use the device," Bezos says.
Details on other products and features announced Thursday:
Kindle Fire HD: The highlight of the event, the tablet will come in two sizes, have a clearer display and have a faster-processing speed for downloading content. While designed to compete with iPad and other larger tablets, the Wi-Fi-only 8.9-inch-display model -- with 16 GB of storage -- will be $299, making it less expensive than many rivals. It can be preordered immediately and begins shipping Nov. 20. The 7-inch Wi-Fi-only model will have 16 gigabytes of storage and ship starting Sept. 14. "We were happy last year to have the best tablet at a certain price. This year we want to have the best tablet at any price," Bezos says.
Amazon experience: Several user-friendly features were added to Kindle Fire HD, aimed at making the purchase of books, music and other digital content a seamless experience -- even when customers change or update devices.
Its Whispersync feature, long used for synching books across multiple devices, has been broadened to include audio and games. The feature allows you to pick up in audio format a book you've been reading.
The games played and interrupted can be picked up on another device. The X-ray feature for movies provides more in-depth information about actors in a specific scene as users consume digital content.
Kindle Fire: Amazon is also updating its current Kindle Fire tablet by doubling its processing speed and lowering its price. The company says the device is 40% faster and has a longer battery life. At $159, it's $40 cheaper. It'll ship Sept. 14. Introduced last year, Kindle Fire now makes up 22% of tablet sales in the U.S., Amazon says.
For 4G LTE customers who buy the $499 HD model, Amazon also introduced a data plan for $50 a year. But it offers only 250 megabytes per month -- enough to check e-mail and download several books -- as well as 20 GB of cloud storage.
Kindle Paperwhite: Aimed at bedtime readers, the new Kindle Paperwhite is an e-reader with an integrated front-light technology spread throughout the entire display. With the light on, it has eight weeks of battery life. It'll ship on Oct. 1. The 3G model, which allows users to download content without a Wi-Fi connection, is $179. The Wi-Fi-only model is $119.
Kindle Touch: The price of the entry-level e-reader will be cut to $69. But the product, which will ship on Sept. 14, will contain ads. "The $69 price for the basic Kindle is unbeatable, and the Paperwhite devices are now the best-in-class for e-readers," says Jan Dawson, chief telecom analyst at Ovum. "There's no one else that does these things this well, this cheaply."
By Edward C. Baig and Roger Yu