Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Kindle Fire - So Close... A Review with Education in Mind

I have had really high hopes for the Kindle Fire, as an Android tablet lover, especially as it might work as an education device. Amazon is big enough and well-positioned enough to bring to market an inexpensive tablet that combines 1) a virtually unlimited library of public domain and traditional books with 2) access to the Web, and 3) an open development app platform. I recognize and appreciate how much the "wow" factor plays a big role in the adoption of the iPad in education, and that an Amazon device is not going to elicit the same reaction--but I'm not sure it needs to if the solid learning functionality over time proves itself.

My own 10" Acer Android tablet (the A500), which I bought only because it was on sale at Staples at the still-amazing price of $299, has become my primary learning device in a way that I didn't anticipate. I've basically stopped using my netbook computer, which indicates that the form factor and size, more than the capabilities, must have been the hidden heart of the netbook's appeal to me. While the tablet is not a great device for creation, which I still do at traditional PCs, the world of knowledge that the tablet conveniently opens to me every day is stunning in scope. I really want that for my own children and for our students.

Having played with a Fire for several hours, I am if anything only more convinced of its potential in education, but less sure that Amazon is taking the product in a direction to realize that promise. I might try to put aside the fact that my own personal work habits are so tied to Google that I won't actually use the Kindle Fire myself as a primary device (more below), but even then the degree to Fire presents an Apple-like integrated/locked-in experience ultimately leaves me uncomfortable evangelizing it to education right now. My Acer tablet has much of the same integration with Google, but without the lock-in.

Intriguingly, though, there's another side to this:  that Fire is more Apple than Android--more locked-down with less work getting started--might actually make it more attractive to schools and parents. I'd have to see what the implications are for giving Fire to a student or child (do they get their own Amazon account? do they have to have the right to make purchases? can I put their Fire on my Amazon account, and if I do so will they have unlimited access to ordering books/movies/music?), but this control could make entry into the student market much easier even if I don't personally like it.

More details below, plus Audrey Watters shared her thoughts about the Kindle fire here, and she and I discuss it at length in our weekly ed tech roundup podcast which will be released on Monday.

First Impressions
  • Minimalist packaging, loved it. Classy, but not over the top.
  • The Kindle Fire recognized me, probably from hardware spec tied to my order with Amazon. Very nice, meaning it brought in all my Amazon content.  Much like Android tablets automatically bring in all your Google content (Gmail, contacts, app purchases), Fire linked to all all my Amazon content (books, music, and video).
  • It found wifi right off the bat, connecting to my network was painless.
  • After it downloaded an update automatically, I was up and running in a few minutes. Here again, more Apple than Android in the user experience setting up.
  • Every time I pick up the device to use, it's pretty much instant-on, which is very nice. It's made me realize that my Android phone and Acer tablet are actually a little sluggish there.
  • The price point ($199) is a huge plus in its favor.
  • Interestingly, by being more than a Kindle, it almost feels like less... Because this is a integrated media device (Amazon video and music, Audible audio book), it left me wanting more because it gave me more. By adding so much additional functionality, I realized how locked in I was to Amazon compared to a traditional Android device.
  • Amazon would really benefit, I think, by focusing this device on education in some way. This would make a LOT of sense for giving the device a mission/purpose. I don't see that yet. If there were a compelling reason for school adoption--either content or capability--I think the price point would make it a no-brainer for parents and teachers.
Amazon Integration

  • This is an Amazon, not Google, integrated android device. I'm so wed to Google that I miss the Google apps and other pieces not authorized by Amazon. But it also makes me realize the degree to which my love affair with my tablet is in part because of my deep Google usage. Right off the bat I miss Google Maps, Google Music, and Skype. 
  • There is value in the unified Amazon experience. It's easy to navigate, and much simpler than my Android tablet--at the cost of being a less fulfilling device for a power user.
  • The Audible integration to Amazon has been a bonus for me just as customer, and is added to on Fire. However, because audible allows you to download audio books (I love this on my Android phone!), I immediately realized that I can't do the same thing with an Amazon movie that I rent or buy, so I can only watch a movie on Fire if I'm connected to a wireless network (in other words, not on a plane or in a car). 


  • I am interested to see if this continues, but I actually found my eyes more tired after reading on Fire than reading on my phone or my Acer tablet. I actually had trouble focusing when looking at reviews in the Kindle store. That would be a little bit of a deal-killer for me as a read.
  • I've lamented the fact that as a Google Prime member who orders lots of books both electronic and physical, and an active user of the Kindle software on my phone and Android tablet, I haven't had access to the new Kindle lending library because it requires and actual Kindle device. So having a Fire comes with the added bonus of being able to borrow a book each month.
  • Also a little unrelated to the Fire itself, I still wish that book samples would synch between devices. I use the book sample feature basically as a way to collect potential purchases, like I would browse in a bookstore, and having those samples on different devices means I never really drill down on most of them.
  • I do a lot of PDF and other non-Kindle reading on my Acer tablet, and I have no interest in trying to figure out how to do this on Fire within Kindle, as I'd be shocked if Amazon will make it easy for me to do... which make the lack of any external memory understandable. My Acer has full USB and micro-SD.

Amazon App Store

  • I've never liked the whole Amazon app store idea, since one of the great features of apps on Android is that the system is seamless over multiple personal devices.  Amazon's app store, by design, doesn't know what apps I'm already using, doesn't know which ones I've paid for already, and doesn't carry some of the ones I use the most.
  • My Android-using 13-year-old daughter, who's been coveting the iPhone recently, grabbed the Fire, looked at the games installed, and immediately said:  I wouldn't want an iPhone if I had a Fire. That surprised me, and I haven't looked in detail at the games available, but am guessing this is the response Amazon wanted!


  • For all the talk about the Silk browser, this was a real disappointment to me. I know it's supposed to "learn" and speed up over time, but right off the bat it didn't feel any faster than my good Android browsers.
  • A major downfall of the browser is that the top and bottom panels eat up so much real estate that in landscape mode I just didn't want to even read the web pages. Maybe I just couldn't figure it out, but I was not able to make the panels auto-hide.  
  • Honestly, I just won't use the browser now if given a choice to use another device.

  • Acknowledging the frustration of having to be on a wireless connection, watching an Amazon movie this way is a very experience.
  • Of course, they are not likely to let me watch Netflix on Fire.   :)  (UPDATE: To Amazon's great credit, the Netflix app is available on the fire.)  Netflix is available on my Android phone, but not on my tablet. I can watch Amazon movies on my tablet using Flash, but it's not a great experience. So what's obvious here is that the movie piece is a big strategic play, and candidly, that's what worried me--the focus and attention on this will detract from the (to me) more important educational opportunities.


  • The Gmail experience is so amazing on my 10" Acer tablet, and so bad on Fire, that I deleted my account within about 5 minutes and didn't even consider using this device for email.


  • Again, I'm really interested in how student accounts would work--do they have to be on their own, with a form of payment involved? If my child has a separate account and I buy a book for him or her, will I also have access to that book?  This is my next research area, as I imagine this is going to be complicated for parents and am hoping that Amazon surprises me and they have some good solutions here. 
  • Like all Android devices, this also suffers from non-multiple user capability.
  • Fire uses the standard micro USB for power charging, which is a HUGE plus for someone always having to think about what cables I need to have when and where. But the power cord is way short--what is that all about?  
  • Because there is no Google Map, I probably won't miss GPS, but it's not there. But it also comes in handy for apps that benefit from knowing where you are (weather and movies, for example).
  • No 3G of course
  • Anecdotal, of course, but the UPS guy who delivered my device, when asked if he'd been delivering many, asked what the Kindle Fire was. Since the name is printed on the box, and the packaging is unique, I guessed my was his only delivery that day. He confirmed that when I showed him the box.