Monday, November 21, 2011

A look at the Kindle Fire: new tablet promotes Amazon, does little to promote the Android platform

Looky here, a new tablet. Or rather a new Kindle. Kindle, tablet, Kindle, tablet. Which is it? Which does it want to be?

The new Kindle Fire will dramatically change the tablet landscape, and I believe will be the first new tablet to actually effect Apple iPad sales. But this will be caused simply by changing the rules of the game: the Kindle was an eReader, not its a tablet, but it is still very much a Kindle.

The Kindle Fire, and most likely the new NOOK from Barnes & Noble, do less to promote Android tablets than they do to promote their own retail ecosystems – neither Amazon nor B&N are getting into the tablet game in order to be tech giants, but rather to protect their main franchises.

The Kindle Fire – the consumer product

TNM doesn't get into tech product reviews, but let's start with the tablet itself.

The launch of the Kindle Fire was well promoted, but the launch was a fuzzy mess. Some buyers received their new tablets a day ahead of the launch, others (like myself) got their Kindle Fires packaged up with previous orders. I was shocked to receive my tablet on Saturday along with a few early Christmas presents. I may have ordered by Kindle Fire over a month ago, but it came with an purchase made only last week.

Contrast that with the way Apple handled its launch of the iPad where Apple made sure everyone who preordered the original iPad received it on the same day via UPS. The launch of the iPad was an event. The launch of the Kindle Fire, on the other hand, was just another Amazon purchase.

The way Amazon sees the Kindle Fire is clear with its design. Start up your new Kindle Fire and the first thing that hits you is that your tablet knows who you are and already has your previous purchases (if there are any) staring at you in the carousel found on the home screen. Significantly, buyers of the Kindle Fire receive a free month of Amazon Prime, the company's free shipping, video streaming service.

The Kindle Fire is considerably heavier than previous Kindles, no surprise there. But since it is a 7-inch tablet it is light 14.6 ounces (the iPad weighs 1.33 pounds, or about one third heavier).

Users will find very little work necessary to get their new Kindles ready to go other than identifying a network to join (as the Kindle Fire does not support 3G).

The Kindle Fire does not feel cheap, unlike some other 7-inch tablets, though it is terribly unfortunate that Amazon chose to include a black power cord rather than the standard Amazon white USB power cord. Because of this, out of the box, your Kindle Fire is completely isolated – it can not be plugged into your computer in order to manage it media content. "Cutting the cord" is a good idea, burning the cord and throwing it away it a bad one, and so I immediately went to Best Buy to buy the USB cable.

The Kindle Fire has access to apps though, but not the Android Market – at least not without a change its settings. There will be some complaints about this, but only a minority of users will actually miss much. Once a platform hits a few thousand apps the user begins feeling comfortable that they will find what they want – after all, Pandora, Netflix, Angry Birds, they are all here and available.

I could go on and on and continue to review this tablet but there are hundreds of reviews out there that pick apart the Kindle Fire, so there is no need to do that here.

The bottom line: this is a 7-inch Kindle tablet – as opposed to a tablet that has a 7-inch display. In other words, the Kindle Fire feels like a Kindle first, a tablet second – that is the way publishers should look at the Kindle Fire.

The Kindle Fire – the Android tablet

On its Kindle Fire store page the word "Android" appears only twice – once in a review, and once again when referring to the Amazon Appstore for Android. Nowhere does Amazon promote its operating system. There is a good reason for this: the use of Android is all about plugging into the Android platform, they are leeches, not fanboys.

The Kindle Fire continues to fragmentation of the Android platform. I don't know how many TNM readers are active Android developers – my guess if far less than for iOS – but it is worth downloading the Android SDK in order to better understand the issues with Android.

Fire up the Android SDK Manager for the first time to install the tools and you are presented with nine different flavors of Android: Android 1.5, Android 1.6, Android 2.1, Android 2.2, Android 2.3.3, Android 3.0, Android 3.1, Android 3.2, Android 4.0.

Developers for iOS know that while we are currently on iOS 5, there are still plenty of iPhone and iPad owners that are still on iOS 4. Their challenge, therefore, is to make sure that their apps work on two generations of iOS.

For the Android developer, though, the problem becomes even more difficult knowing the Kindle Fire
uses a customized version the Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS. Why would Amazon do this? Why wouldn't they make the Kindle Fire a Honeycomb (3.0) tablet? I guess the answer would be "why would they?" or "Why is this important?"

I asked myself this and tried to put myself in the shoes of an Android developer and I simply couldn't say why this would be important to Amazon. Amazon wants to sell books, music, videos, apps, it can do this just fine with Android 2.3 – a well-worn, reliable OS.

The Kindle Fire, unlike the iPad, stands alone – it is not part of a greater ecosystem. Amazon wants to create its own ecosystem, not integrate the Kindle Fire into a bigger system. The Kindle Fire doesn't want to stream videos to your TV, have you share photos on through an Apple TV, or have you play music through your stereo system. The Kindle Fire is, well, a Kindle.

But if you are an Android developer this all presents a problem: you have to get your apps into both the Android Market and Amazon's Appstore for Android. But if you are a publisher you have to make a decision, as well: do you create native Android apps or do you create replica editions that will find a home within the Kindle platform?

The Kindle Fire – Kindle Editions

Publishers will smile the first time they launch the Kindle Fire: the first tablet on the upper left says "Newsstand". The Kindle Fire is a media purchasing machine, and most publishers already inside the ecosystem are treating it that way.

As a result, what you will find to buy, if you are a reader, is tons of replica editions – hard to read on the iPad's 9.7-inch display, and now much worse on the Kindle Fire's 7-inch display.

So what should a publisher do? After all, if millions of readers will own these devices should they get on board? Yes. But the question I would ask is how does the introduction of the Kindle Fire change your digital publishing strategy.

For now I would think that it doesn't, simply consider the Kindle Fire as a new Kindle, not as a new Android tablet. That means that the Kindle Fire is good news for Amazon, and good news for publishers committed to the Kindle – it is irrelevant to the Android platform, however.

But that last statement may need to be modified at some point. For publishers who have nothing currently available on the Android platform and who have developers or vendors working on the platform this might be the time to jump in.

What seems to be developing (if you don't mind me using that word) is two distinct platforms for publishers – not so much Android versus iOS, but replica versus native, with most of the native apps appearing on Apple devices. Sure, the Apple App Store has lots of apps that are actually selling replica editions, but there are few tablet optimized native apps for publications on Android – and maybe that is the way to go.

Having said all that, however, I have to remind publishers that readers may find these apps (replicas) convenient, but they rarely consider them pleasurable – at least based on both the reviews I read inside the app stores, and the research I have read. This is why print continues to be the preferred platform for periodicals, and why much of the surveys I've read are flawed. It is no longer enough to ask whether a reader prefers to read a magazine in print versus digital, not when digital can be broken out into mobile, tablets, and then into small and large screened tablets, and then again into replica versus native designs.

The best design for a magazine or newspaper on the Kindle Fire would be one that offers a text based periodical – as if it were simply an e Ink display – but then incorporate graphics. In other words, a book publishing strategy. Whether magazine and newspapers want to go to the trouble of designing something special for the Kindle Fire remains to be seen, but I doubt it.

And that might be the bottom line: many developers will continue to stretch and advance the iOS platform because the iPad allows them to do that. But the Kindle Fire does not really change the landscape for Android and force publishers to do anything new – anything revolutionary.


Amazon will sell millions of Kindle Fires. Barnes & Noble will sell lots of NOOKs, as well. Those that say, though, that these devices won't put a dent into iPad sales are deluding themselves. The simply fact is that the lower prices for these tablets will be all that is needed to convince some buyers to go with a Kindle or NOOK.

Both of these new tablets will also boost Android's market share – and we all know how important this is to tech and media sites.

For publishers, the introduction of the Kindle Fire means that you need to continue to look at Amazon as an important distributor of periodicals. I would equate the launch of the Kindle Fire to one newsstand distributor buying another: it reinforces the need to work with that distributor. If you weren't thinking "Amazon" before today you should now.

As a consumer, I would say that the Kindle Fire is the eReader to own, but it is not the tablet to own. No one in my family cared one bit that there was a new Kindle Fire in the house, we already owned an iPad. The iPad interfaces with their phones, it interfaces with the TV. The Kindle Fire, well, it's like the newspaper or magazine in the basket – maybe you'll pick it up, maybe you won't.