Amazon (AMZN) Kindle Fire tablets, e-reader, smartphone? set to be unveiled

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(CNN) -- Is Amazon, the online retailer-turned-gadget maker, getting into the phone business?

The company is scheduled to make some major product announcements Thursday from an airplane hangar in Santa Monica, California. Most observers expect an updated version of the popular Kindle Fire tablet -- including possibly a larger, iPad-size model -- and a revamped Kindle e-reader with a backlight feature that makes its screen readable in the dark.

But an unconfirmed report Wednesday on tech news site The Verge, citing "multiple sources," said that Amazon will also unveil a smartphone that runs a variant of the Kindle Fire's Android-based operating system. CNN could not confirm that report Thursday morning.

Amazon's event, set for 1:30 p.m. ET, is just one of many product announcements this month from electronics companies hoping to build hype ahead of the holidays. Nokia and Motorola announced new smartphones on Wednesday, and HTC is planning an event for September 19. The tech companies also are battling to make an impression in the shadow of Apple's big press conference next Wednesday, which is most likely for the newest iPhone.

Rumors and leaks have been plentiful ahead of the Amazon event, with all signs pointing to an array of new Kindles. The Kindle Touch and Kindle Touch 3G were recently listed as "Currently Unavailable" on Amazon.com, and last Thursday the Internet retailer claimed the $199 Kindle Fire had sold out, nine months after it went on sale. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has called the original Kindle Fire Amazon's most successful product launch and, in a press release last week, said it accounts for 22% of tablet sales in the United States.

Amazon has not released any sales numbers for the device to support this statistic, but research firm IDC says the company had 4.8% of the global market share in the second quarter this year. Since the Kindle Fire is only sold in the States, that percentage is likely higher in this country.

The 7-inch Kindle Fire debuted a year ago at $199. It was met with lukewarm reviews but was still a hit with consumers looking for an affordable alternative to the $499-and-up iPad. Early complaints focused on many small design issues, such as the lack of external volume buttons, no video output and a poorly placed power button. Performance was also a problem, with sluggish Web browsing and video playback speeds.

Meanwhile, the tablet market is filling up with options from major manufacturers. At the moment, it's still dominated by Apple, which released a refreshed iPad in March and had a 62% global tablet market share in the second quarter. The company is expected to announce a new, smaller version of the iPad in October.

Other new tablets include Microsoft's Surface tablet, running the new Windows 8 operating system, which will go on sale October 26. Google released its own 7-inch tablet this summer, the $199 Nexus 7, and is pushing it hard, even giving it a coveted ad spot on the Google.com homepage. They join Samsung's Galaxy line as well as the Barnes & Noble Nook and BlackBerry PlayBook, both $199.

While all tablets have differences in hardware design, performance and price, a bigger factor may turn out to be access to music, books, movies and television shows.

Amazon has a head start in this department. This week, the company announced a new partnership with Epix, which will bring blockbusters such as "The Avengers" to Amazon Prime, the company's $79-a-year instant-streaming service.

 
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