Open ... And Shut Amazon's new Kindle Fire is almost certain to be a financial success for Amazon, and may finally make a name for Google's Android in tablets. If only the success and acclaim were deserved.
Amazon has done quite a bit to soften Android's rough edges, but in my experience it hasn't gone nearly far enough to rival the iPad for elegance and polish. Then again, it doesn't need to: at $199, Amazon's Kindle Fire doesn't have to be great. It just has to be good enough.
I have been looking forward to the Kindle Fire for months. I have an iPad and and an iPad 2, and have spent quite a bit of time with other tablets too: Samsung's Galaxy Tab 8.9, Motorola's Xoom, and Research in Motion's Playbook, in particular. But what I really have wanted was something that felt more like my second-generation Kindle in my hand, but with the ability to run a few apps and occasionally watch video. The Kindle Fire seemed to fit the bill.
Except that it doesn't. Despite being nearly half a pound lighter than the iPad 2, it actually feels heavier, in large part because of its boxy shape. It doesn't rest in the hand nearly as well as the much larger iPad 2. I can only imagine how much more painful to hold the rumoured larger Kindle Fire will be.
As disappointing as the weight issue is, the software is far worse. Amazon has forked Android and put a fair amount of work into smoothing the user experience. But not nearly enough. Even in an area that should shine for Amazon – the book-reading experience – the interface is slow and clumsy, with a creaking lag between page turns/swipes.
This is actually made worse by Amazon's curated approach to apps. Android already lags Apple's app ecosystem by a considerable margin, but most of the big, brand-name apps I use are also available for Android. Except not on the Kindle Fire. Amazon has yet to bless many of them, and it's difficult to impossible for a mainstream user to install such apps. In some cases, like Google's apps, Amazon appears to be deliberately excluding them. In others, it probably hasn't gotten around to approving them yet.
In either case, it's annoying.
And yet I doubt this will negatively impact the Kindle Fire's adoption. At the bargain basement price of $199, Amazon has likely delivered the tablet's "Volkswagen moment," as ZDNet's Jason Perlow writes. No, it's not as polished as Apple's "Mercedes-esque" iOS experience, whether in its exterior (the heavy, bulky Kindle Fire hardware) or its interior (the clunky Amazon-forked Android experience). But at $199, will the masses notice? Not likely.
Also, lest we forget, most of the world doesn't own an iPad, and has yet to have this "Mercedes" experience. All of the problems I've identified are problems of comparison, for the most part. If users haven't played with an iPad, they're unlikely to be overly bothered by how far short the Kindle Fire falls of the iPad experience.
At any rate, there's some evidence out there that the Kindle Fire is cannibalising the sale of other tablets, not the iPad. If someone wants an iPad, it appears they're still likely to buy one. At least, for now.
This is, after all, the way the smartphone market has played out. The iPhone held its own for awhile, and then steadily ceded ground to Android-based devices, which now claim over 50 per cent of that market.
I'm a big Amazon fan, and a loyal customer since 1995. But I think I'll continue to buy my Kindle ebooks to use with my iPad, or my legacy Kindle devices. The Kindle Fire excels at nothing, except at being considerably cheaper than the iPad. For most people, that will be enough. I doubt Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos will miss me. ®
Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analyzing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.