Could Amazon’s Kindle Fire Dethrone Apple’s iPad?

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Whatever the pundits want to say about Amazon’s new Kindle Fire, however much they want to throttle each other for letting slip trite, presumptive clichés like “iPad killer,” they have to admit, Amazon basically painted crosshairs on Cupertino’s back when it unveiled a $200 color Android tablet at today’s press event—a tablet that’ll play in Amazon’s unique, e-tail comprehensive, cloud-fueled ecosystem.

Hey, it’s the question everyone’s asking, right? Apple’s the 800-pound gorilla in the tablet-sphere, and the iPad’s not exactly boutique-priced at just $500 for the base model—you’re getting a fair lot of computing power for $500. But a souped up Android tablet gilded with exclusive Amazon-ian features and on a relatively cheap $200 flight path toward Amazon’s eventual dyed-in-the-wool iPad competitor that’ll no doubt rectify stuff like the Fire’s missing camera, microphone and 3G wireless? That’s just gravy.

(MORE: Amazon Unveils $199 ‘Kindle Fire’ Android Tablet, $99 ‘Kindle Touch’)

So no, let’s get this straight up front, the Kindle Fire isn’t an iPad-killer (nothing is or really could be, until Apple stumbles in a big way, which it has yet to do). IDC recently saidit expects Apple’s iOS to stay well ahead of Android OS—the entire, multi-model Android-verse, that is—by over 40 percentage points through 2011.

What the Kindle Fire is: a shot across Apple’s bow. It’s a vision of what happens when a major player like Amazon steps into the Android game. And it’s a warning to Cupertino. Okay, it’s more than a warning for some of you. For some of you, $200 and Amazon integration is the jump-off spot. I’ll be frank, the Kindle Fire may in fact be my first tablet when it launches November 15. I was holding out for the iPad 3, but the Fire suddenly looks a lot more appealing.

Do I need the iPad’s camera? Nope, I have an iPhone 4 to capture casual pics or run video chat sessions. The microphone? Again, my iPhone 4 takes care of business if I’m doing voice memos or Skype-ing with my wife when she travels abroad. Will I miss the iPad’s 10-inch screen (the Fire’s is 7 inches)? Not really. In fact I’ve wished for awhile now that Apple would roll out a smaller iPad, something that’d fit in my wife’s purse, for instance. That, and the iPad 2 weighs nearly 21 ounces compared to the Fire’s notably lighter 14.6. Which would you rather hold in bed, reading at night? (Yes, you can certainly say neither, or that you’d prefer the new e-Ink based grayscale Kindle Touch.)

Do I need more than 8GB of local storage? Not if Amazon’s cloud service has my back, though I have to admit I’m disappointed Amazon won’t offer a 3G version of the Fire at launch. That’s a major omission by any metric. Sure, you’d have to pay a monthly access fee, as you do with the iPad, but I suspect plenty would sign up to do so, given quota-appropriate data plans that complemented Amazon’s cloud storage and streaming options, which include online stockpiling of books, movies and music, gratis.

Perhaps that’s the 3G (or 4G) sticking point: If you’re going to make cloud storage the de facto option for multimedia, with the carrier networks putatively stressed to capacity already, perhaps Amazon wants to get its ducks in a row (and carriers, and carrier technology) before plugging another tablet into that increasingly complicated game.

I don’t want to oversell this thing, either—the iPad’s a pretty amazing device, and the Android market’s certainly not wanting for alternatives—but Amazon’s clearly (and finally) playing on Apple’s level with the Fire. Calling it an iPad-killer’s silly at this point, but calling it an iPad-rival or even an iPad-alternative, based on what we’ve seen so far, isn’t far off the mark.

MORE: Bloomberg Announces $199 Amazon ‘Kindle Fire’ Tablet Before Amazon Does

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.