Editors' note (September 8, 2012, 6:21 p.m. PT): One day after this story was published, Amazon has reversed course. The company now says it will offer a $15 opt-out option to go ad-free.
Amazon introduced a bevy of new tablets and e-readers at its Santa Monica, Calif., press conference yesterday. And once the dust cleared, it became clear that there was a tiny asterisk that the company wasn't highlighting: all of the new Kindle Fire tablets include ad-supported "Special Offers." That means that the lock-screen will have have an ad, along with a link on the home screen to a full list of sponsored deals.
There's nothing new about these Special Offers on Kindle products. Previously, however, the ads were limited to lower-priced Kindle e-ink models. And Amazon gave you two ways to get ad-free versions: you could buy the more expensive, ad-free version of the product to begin with (a $20 premium on the new e-ink Kindles), or you could "buy out" of the ads after purchasing the Special Offer Kindle by simply paying the difference later, through your Amazon setup page.
With the new Fire models, Amazon is removing both of those opt-out options. While there are a dizzying array of Fire and Fire HD tablet versions (7-inch, 8.9-inch, built-in 4G, and varying storage capacities), there won't be non-Special Offers versions available at a premium (the option remains for e-ink Kindles).
More importantly, an Amazon spokesperson has confirmed to CNET that there will be no way to buy out of the Special Offers ads.
That directly contradicts an earlier Engadget story which stated that users could opt out of the ads. The Engadget story cites Amazon support as the source. I don't doubt that someone in Amazon support said that, but it doesn't appear to be correct. Presumably, Amazon will be updating its support documentation accordingly in the near future. (Editors' note: Engadget has since updated its story, further confirming "no opt out.")
Is this a big deal?
Assuming Amazon doesn't roll this back -- which would be very easy with a policy change and a software tweak (allowing you buy an opt-out, as you can on current e-ink Kindles) -- does this really matter? Is Amazon force-feeding ads down your throat? Should you really have to stand for that, even if you're paying (at the high end, for the 4G model 8.9-inch model) up to $500?
As the owner of a 2011 Kindle with Special Offers, my personal opinion is: I don't care about the ads very much. Yes, it's occasionally jarring to see a diaper ad on the front of my device (when it's in standby mode), but it's gone with a click of the button. I never even notice the smaller ad on the Kindle index page, and I've even taken advantages of some of the special offers (usually for discounted e-books).
If Amazon ever changed its policy, and the ads became more invasive -- pop-ups while you're reading a book, for example -- it would be completely different. But so far that hasn't happened.
Amazon makes no secret of its ultimate goal: "We want to make money when people use our devices, not when they buy our devices," said CEO Jeff Bezos at the Kindle launch. So, the "price" of cheap hardware is letting Amazon nag you buy stuff every once in a while.
At the end of the day, I feel that my cheap, ad-supported Kindle was a pretty good transaction: I got $20 off the price of my device, and Amazon gets advertising access to my eyeballs. Of course, I only paid $79; as the price goes up, I'm guessing shoppers would be less tolerant of ads.
I think Amazon is going to take heat for two things here. First, by removing the removing the opt-out option, it removes a choice from the consumer -- and consumers tend to hate that. I'd bet that only a very small percentage of Kindle purchasers ever exercise that opt-out option, but they "like that it's there." But the second and bigger problem is probably that Amazon wasn't as transparent with the change as it could have been. The "with Special Offers" nomenclature is highlighted when you buy the e-ink Kindles, but for the Fires, it's been pushed down the feature list.
Who knows: perhaps there will be a big Netflix-style backlash. Perhaps shoppers will greet this with a yawn. Or maybe even Amazon will reverse course and add the opt-out option back in.
Ultimately, though, consumers will have a choice: they can choose not to buy a Kindle Fire at all, and instead go with one of the myriad competitors available (Google's Nexus 7, Barnes & Noble's current or upcoming Tablet, one of Samsung's many Galaxy models, and maybe even an iPad Mini -- just to name a few).
Editors' note: This post was updated at 2:10 p.m. PT with additional screenshots, and the "Is this a big deal?" commentary section.