Amazon has announced its long-anticipated entry into the tablet market with the US$199 Kindle Fire, due to go on sale 15 November and US-only for now.

While some were anticipating an iPad Killer and several commentators are disappointed that it’s not, taking Apple head-on today Amazon Kindle Firewas never going to be Amazon’s strategy. Following Apple’s playbook (no pun intended)—where it launched the low risk iPod Touch before the iPhone, then the iPad—Amazon was always going to take the long route to competing with Apple in the tablet market.

It’s started on this route with the Kindle Fire, producing the gadget for the rest of them, at a price point for the rest of them. It’s half the iPad’s starting price of US$499. And it’s a techie-free zone in a form factor that’s familiar to millions of Kindle users as well as users of the popular Barnes and Noble Nook Color: lightweight, book-sized, 7 inch (18cm) screen with widescreen viewing rather than the larger (and heavier) 10-inch/25cm form of the iPad. The initial unit is WiFi only with no 3G option yet.

Steve Jobs may be right about the superior general-purpose usability of the larger iPad, but Amazon can afford to optimise its smaller gadget for a more targeted reading audience while still selling millions. And colour means it can start to open up to magazines and video, quietly growing its content catalogue and licensing deals. It cleverly sidesteps direct competition with the iPad for now, while building the foundations for full-scale battle later. Expect the bigger screen version by Christmas 2012 at the earliest.

And by the way, it’s Android-powered. You wouldn’t know it from Amazon’s marketing which is aimed at a decidedly less geekish crowd than Google’s other partners will be attracting to early Android efforts. Amazon launched its low-key Android appstore a few months ago and has built a solid, curated collection of apps already. Expect many more now that Amazon has a platform for games and other hot-selling app categories.

As part of its launch, Amazon also announced a new web browser called Silk. While you might think the world doesn’t need another web browser, more than likely when we look back, Silk will be the more important announcement in the Kindle Fire’s launch.

What’s different about Silk from most other web browsers is that it off-loads to Amazon’s huge servers in the cloud a lot of the heavy lifting associated with downloading web pages. Instead of all the work happening on the user’s local device, Silk splits requests so that some or all of the files in a web page request can be optimised and downloaded from cached copies on Amazon’s servers. This could reduce the time for a page to appear by 10- or 20-fold and reduce file sizes to limit data usage.

For mobile users on slower and more expensive connections, this will be a major boost. And when you think about where media is headed (yes, to the cloudincluding books), this is going to be a key competitive driver for Amazon. For US users, the Kindle Fire will come bundled with a free 30-day subscription to its Amazon Prime video and TV streaming service.

[As an aside, it should highlight the misguided net neutrality debate. Amazon's potential advantage from Silk provides another reason why extreme adherence to net neutrality will end up reducing, not improving, competition and access. Any ISP should be able to offer a premium web-browsing service for customers who want to pay for it. If not, those customers will migrate to a small number of powerful, vertically-integrated technology/content players like Amazon, reducing the number of viable channels for content providers.]

While the Kindle Fire stole the limelight, Amazon also updated its black and white Kindle family. There’s now a touchscreen version which benefits from a slightly bigger screen within the same form factor. The entry level Kindle, just called “Kindle” and using a simple 5-way controller for navigation, now starts at US$79 in the US (US$109 in international markets which currently aren’t offered Amazon’s cheaper-in-return-for-viewing-ads option). The original Kindle is now called the Kindle Keyboard and starts at US$99 (US$139 without ads), as does the new Kindle Touch.

New Zealand and Australia, like other international markets, will just have to wait for the new Kindle Fire with no announcement yet on likely availability. Given Amazon’s mid-November US shipment date, it’s unlikely we’ll see wide international distribution until after Christmas, unless Amazon finds itself stoking a less-than-hot Fire in the pre-Christmas run-up. Don’t hold your breath.

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