By Bill Rigby
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Amazon.com Inc has begun selling a juiced-up line-up of new Kindle tablets, many sporting a unique video helpdesk feature it hopes will give it a leg-up over Apple Inc and Google Inc during the holiday season.
Kindle Fire HDX tablets feature what Amazon has called the "Mayday Button," a panic button that calls up a tech-support representative right on the screen, who can then tell a user how to operate the device or do it for them remotely.
The service, free for HDX customers, is Amazon's way of trying to stand out in an increasingly crowded field of devices that perform much the same functions.
Amazon boasts the world's largest online retail marketplace and a growing library of digital content, and prices its Kindles far below the iPad and Android tablets from Samsung Electronics <005930.KS>.
But Android and Apple gadgets sport far more applications, which many industry experts consider the most vital factor behind purchase decisions.
"MayDay" will be available any day or hour, and is shooting for a maximum 15-second response time. Users can move the video box around the screen as it suits them, and they cannot be seen by the Amazon representative. Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said the company was training reps by the thousands and will hire more if needed.
"The third-generation of Kindle tablets mark another meaningful step forward, and increasingly differentiate Kindle Fire from the increasingly crowded tablet market," Robert W Baird analyst Colin Sebastian said on Wednesday.
"However, our biggest push-back on Kindle is the lack of a compelling app store or library of apps, compared to what is available from Apple or Google," said Sebastian.
The world's largest Internet retailer takes a different approach to the tablet market than Apple, selling its Kindle devices at close to cost then profiting off the sale of digital content such as video and music, or physical goods like books from its website. That strategy has quickly allowed Amazon to establish the Kindle among the top-selling tablets on the market, behind Apple and Samsung.
Since Amazon took the plunge into the then-nascent tablet market with the Kindle Fire in 2011, the devices have proven to be effective vending machines for purchases.
It is unclear how the up-close-and-personal support feature will affect the underlying cost of supporting the Kindle. Amazon already runs one of the Internet retail industry's largest customer service centers, handling everything from shipping inquiries to purchasing and payments assistance.
"This is the kind of feature that we are well-suited to do," said Bezos, previewing the new tablets to reporters at Amazon's Seattle headquarters on Tuesday. "Many of the things we've done marry together high-tech with heavy lifting. This is one of those things."
Amazon would not say exactly how many support staff were behind the Mayday service. "We'll be ready for Christmas morning, which is always a very big tech support day for us," Bezos said.
BY THE NUMBERS
The latest Kindles, which run the newest version of Amazon's own Google Android-based operating software codenamed Mojito, will go up against steep competition this coming holidays. Samsung began selling its Note 3 "phablet" - a cross between a tablet and a phone - on Wednesday.
On the smartphone front, the iPhone 5S and 5C have racked up record sales and will be strong contenders for consumers' wallets.
Apple is expected to take the wraps off its own beefed-up iPads in coming months, hoping to sustain its dominance of a tablet market it helped create with the first device in 2010.
Shares of Amazon were down 0.3 percent at $313.25 in afternoon trading.
The new tablets, one with a 7-inch (18cm) screen and one with an 8.9-inch screen, are lighter and more powerful than the last Kindle HD line and appear to be aimed at Apple's market-leading iPad. Amazon's new HDX tablets come in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB storage sizes.
The smaller Kindle Fire HDX tablet starts at $229 and the bigger tablet starts at $379, both for 16GB wifi-only models. By comparison, Apple's 16GB wifi iPad mini starts at $329, and its 16GB full-sized wifi iPad starts at $499.
Amazon is taking pre-orders immediately for wifi-only models, with shipping scheduled for October for the 7-inch tablet and November for the 8.9-inch tablet. Wireless 4G versions of both will also be available, for $100 extra, later this year.
In addition, Amazon is selling an updated version of its Kindle Fire HD for $139, down from $199 for the last generation.
Together, Amazon is hoping the new offerings will give it a bigger share of the exploding tablet market, currently led by Apple's iPad, followed by Samsung's Galaxy range of tablets.
The company is also modifying some of the Kindle's software capabilities to try to appeal to a broader range of customers.
To promote profitable cross-selling, Amazon has extended its popular 'X-Ray' feature, which now allows users to buy music featured in TV shows and films at the touch of a button.
It is also allowing subscribers to download videos to watch when offline, appealing to travelers and pure wifi users.
"It's the software and services that will keep users happy. The 'Mayday' customer service feature is unique to Amazon, and will be a huge help to mainstream users of the device. Your mom won't have to call you for tech support anymore," said Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps.
"And, it must be said, Amazon is unassailable when it comes to price," said Epps. (Editing by Matt Driskill, Edwin Chan and Tim Dobbyn)