Amazon has been quietly, and with very little fuss or fanfare, building an ecosystem right under Apple's nose, and now it could pose a real risk to one of its key devices.
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Rumors are circulating that Amazon is working on Alexa-powered devices that support voice calls and intercom functionality. Evidence also emerged that Amazon is also working on an indoor video camera, which could be either for home security or video conferencing.
Now, while new devices are interesting, they don't automatically give much cause for concern for the folks over at Apple HQ. After all, Amazon is not a new entry into the consumer electronics market (it all started with the Kindle e-reader back in 2007), and Amazon's not immune to failures (remember the Fire Phone that was released in July 2014 and discontinued a year later?).
But what should worry Apple is where Amazon is likely to take this technology.
Take the Amazon Fire range of tablets (tablets that saw a phenomenal 99.4 percent annual growth during 2016). It's always struck me that while the Fire tablets have a front-facing camera, Amazon's never really done anything with it.
Given that Amazon has already retrofitted its Alexa voice assistant to work on the Fire tablets, it follows that if Amazon is working on some system to rival Apple's FaceTime offering, then pushing it to the millions of Fire Tablets out there makes a lot of sense.
And why stop at Fire tablets? What about those millions of Echo, Echo Dot, and Echo Tap devices that Amazon has shipped? They don't have a camera, but they've all got a Wi-Fi connection and an excellent speaker and microphone setup, and they could all become "telephones" in whatever system Amazon is developing.
And Amazon could easily expand this even further by developing an app for other platforms -- including iOS -- to support such a feature.
OK, but how does any of this pose a risk to the iPad?
Well, let's begin with the fact that the iPad is in big trouble, with sales in free fall. Apple CEO Tim Cook claims to be bullish about the future of the iPad, but the truth is he's hardly going to come out and say that it's a dying product, is he?
If you've been watching the iPad's evolution as carefully as I have, you will have noticed how Apple has tried to reinvent it several times. It started out life as an upscaled version of the iPhone for people who wanted a bigger display, and as a counter for the myriad of Android tablets in development prior to unveilings at CES 2010.
Initially the iPad was a big success, but as sales waned, Apple shifted focus and tried to market it to business users, and then with the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, it marketed the iPad as a tool for creative types. But beyond that initial big thrust of sales to consumers willing to take a gamble on the product, Apple has not succeeded in pulling the device out of its death spiral, even temporarily.
And, worse still, the release of iOS 10, which made some 40 percent of all iPads in use obsolete, hasn't triggered a much-anticipated upgrade cycle.
One of the factors working against the iPad is price. The cheapest iPad, currently the iPad mini 2, retails for $269, while a new 9.7-inch iPad Pro starts at a lofty $599, and a top-end 256GB 12.9-inch iPad Pro with cellular costs a staggering $1,129.
Compare this to the Fire line. You can pick up a Fire tablet for $50, with the top-end 10.1-inch Fire HD 10 costing only $230 (and it features a microSD card slot that supports cards up to 200GB, so the 16GB of built-in storage isn't going to be a problem).
Oh, and don't forget to throw into the equation the fact that Amazon's Alexa voice assistant is far superior to Apple's Siri.
If Amazon can pull the Fire tablets and Echo devices together to create a communications platform along the lines of FaceTime or Skype, and continue to keep the pressure on Apple on both the price and Alexa features front, then this could very well be the end of the iPad.
Before I go, let me anticipate a question I'm bound to get: "Won't the pro/creative/enterprise market be the thing that saves the iPad?"
In a word, no.
Well, these markets aren't saving the iPad now, are they? So, what's going to change?
Apple keeps dabbling in these markets, but all signs point to Apple slowly retreating from the anything that isn't mass market and ultimately aimed at consumers. It keeps dumbing down its pro software (think Final Cut Pro). It is letting its high-end Mac Pro workstation wither and die from a lack of attention, and its forays into pro markets haven't really paid off with the iPad.
Apple understands that anything outside of mainstream consumer electronics is a niche market, and for a company pulling in billions of dollars every quarter from a mainstream smartphone, these markets are nothing more than a distraction.
The only thing that can save the iPad is people buying it, and that's not happening, and it doesn't seem that Apple is willing to do what is needed to reinvigorate sales (one of those things being slash prices).
[UPDATE: Clarified the timeline of iPad and Android tablet unveiling.]
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