Kobo Announces Kindle Fire Competitor, The $199.99 WiFi Vox Tablet

In an effort to compete with Amazon’s Kindle Fire, e-reading company Kobo is launching a tablet of its own: The $199.99 Kobo Vox, a 7-inch Android, WiFi color tablet that starts shipping October 28. How does it stack up to the Kindle Fire?

Kobo’s website appears to be promoting the Vox primarily as an e-reader, more similar to the Nook Color than to an iPad. By contrast, Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) is stressing the Kindle Fire’s tablet features–Web, video, music–above the e-reading experience. That said, the Vox has tablet-like functions: It has e-mail, a web browser, and music through Rdio, and offers access to an open Android app store. Like the Kindle Fire (and unlike the iPad), it is WiFi-only, no 3G.

At the same price as the Kindle Fire, the Kobo Vox is a tough sell–why choose the budget tablet from a much less well-known company? In an attempt to differentiate itself from the Kindle Fire, Kobo is playing up the Vox’s openness. A lot. “Kobo Vox — The Peoples’ Reader! (Vox populi, voice of the people),” the site proclaims. “Based on Kobo’s founding principle … FREEDOM.” Users can “read freely” (unlike Amazon, Kobo supports the open e-book format EPUB, which can be read on any open e-reader) and access the open Android store–the Vox has “unencumbered access to Android 2.3 so you are free to customize your experience to suit you best!” The Vox’s Web browser is open and Android-based.

By contrast, the Kindle Fire runs on a modified version of Android and users will have access not to the open Android store but to the Amazon Appstore, which is vetting submissions and will only include apps that can run on the Kindle Fire.” On Daring Fireball, John Gruber recently noted that the word “Android” only appears once on the Kindle Fire page, “in the following sentence: ‘Additional email apps are available in our Amazon Appstore for Android.’ It’s a Kindle tablet, not an Android tablet.” The Kindle Fire also has its own browser, Kindle Silk.

It’s unclear how much of this is going to matter to users; other open Android tablets have sold poorly, and the Kindle Fire is widely considered to be the first viable iPad alternative. It is supposed to begin shipping on October 28, two weeks before the Kindle Fire. Meanwhile, The Digital Reader notes that Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) just dropped the price of the refurbished Nook Color to $149, amidst speculation that it too will release an updated tablet soon. (The regular Nook Color is $249.)

One area where Kobo might be able to compete with Amazon is internationally, but for now, the Kobo Vox is only available for pre-order in the U.S. and Canada (Kobo’s majority shareholder is Canadian retailer Indigo). The Kindle Fire is only available in the U.S. for now, and international expansion has not been discussed.