Weekend Tech Scan: A cross-examination of the Kindle Fire

While the Amazon Kindle Fire looks to provide users with a gorgeous and colorful new interface, there are still some questions about what it will, or will not, be able to do.

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The Kindle family.

While the Amazon Kindle Fire looks to provide users with a gorgeous and colorful new interface, there are still some questions about what it will, or will not, be able to do.

We’re now at the last of the major 2011 consumer tech releases. First it was the iPad 2, then the iPhone 4S, and now it’s time for the next tech version of The Rapture: the Amazon Kindle Fire. The $199 7-inch tablet is coming on November 15, little more than 3 weeks away, and seems likely to gain the same kind of rock star attention attached to Apple products. Some predict that Fire sales could hit 5 million by year’s end.

But before we get overwhelmed, there are some questions yet to be answered about the Kindle Fire. One can only hope that Amazon has them covered; that we won’t be utterly disappointed and Amazon's Fire relegated to the Digital Drawer of Broken Dreams.

I’ve already put in my order, so these questions are as important for me as I hope they are for you.

The Fire redefines the idea of a single-purpose device: A pocket-sized entertainment machine that gives us books, TV shows, movies, music, apps, and games. No productivity machine here, no greatest and latest technology thriller. Just a great gadget catering to all the stuff we like to read, watch, listen to, and goof around with.

These are all important functions, but let's be clear that what we're actually getting is a remarkable marketing tool. A device designed around all the digital stuff Amazon wants us to buy — including ebooks, movies, TV shows, games and other apps — in its vast online storehouse. 

The company could be taking a $10 beating on each tablet it sells according to Bloomberg: A risk it’s willing to take (assuming the report is correct) if enough people buy what is undoubtedly an inexpensive tablet and use it to keep downloading — and paying for — all that delicious content.

There’s nothing wrong with that paradigm, so long as you understand it and its limitations.

For one, while the tablet is based on Android software, it is clearly not a traditional Android device. What it is is a limited-purpose tablet with no camera, no webcam, and no microphone.

What's more, the official release ominously omits any mention of the Android Market App store, leaving many critics to believe it won't be included. This means that Fire owners' app purchases will be limited to the smaller Amazon Appstore for Android. At its launch last March, the Amazon store only had an estimated 3,800 apps versus an estimated 200,000 apps in the Android Market. That figure will obviously change over time, but for now the Amazon market is obviously lacking in size and missing quite a few favorites in the Android Market.

Though the Amazon Appstore has some special features (like a free daily app and a try-before-you-buy testing program), it's hard to imagine them making up for audience favorites like Netflix, Dropbox, HBO Go, Hulu or Hulu+, Spotify, and Nook. And there are no Google apps included.

It remains to be seen whether the reluctance to create a Fire-Android Market partnership is on Amazon's part or on the part of individual content developers, but the bottom line is just that. If an app isn't available in the Amazon app market, it won't be available to Kindle Fire owners.

Some of this will undoubtedly change in the ensuing months: Amazon is hardly unaware that people will be clamoring for more apps, more familiar content and more content providers. I was pleased to find, for example, Seattle’s Rhapsody music subscription service, Pandora, and Evernote are already available in the Amazon app store. 

It should also be noted that there has been no official word from Amazon that the Android Market will be excluded from the Kindle Fire. Still, the company’s desire to distance itself from Google was quite evident in its press release and public unveiling of the Fire last month. A call to Amazon PR about the Android Market and other Kindle Fire issues was not returned.

Another issue is about the libraries of streaming movies and TV shows you’ll have available on your Kindle Fire.  

Remember the Qwest ad from 2008? The desk clerk telling the traveler that her crummy motel offers "every movie ever made in any language anytime, day or night" via the Internet?

In 2011, that’s not too far from reality, thanks to the stampede of companies bringing their content to the web. Currently, many services like MUBI for foreign films and Drama Fever for Korean TV and movies are available online through subscription plans. These should be available to Kindle Fire users through the new Silk browser — unless Amazon blocks them; I have no information either way on what Amazon could or will do.

There's also the question of what you'll pay for additional films and TV programs. Which films will be sold as individual rentals, and which will be included in Amazon Prime — Amazon's $75 annual subscription service that provides free streaming movies and 2-day package deliveries?  

Amazon is swiftly beefing up its streaming content in a flat-out competition with Netflix. In September, it added 11,000 Fox movies and shows to its library. And this week, it announced its acquisition of licensing for the PBS library, which will be streamed free to Amazon Prime customers. This adds another 1,000 programs to the Amazon Prime streaming library, plus day-after replays of PBS shows.

But will everything be streamed? This is anecdotal, but it illustrates the issue. The Criterion Collection contains some of the world’s greatest films: From “Citizen Kane” to “8-1/2.” Amazon Instant Video includes 27 Criterion films available as rentals, but if I use my $8 Hulu Plus subscription, I can see over 100 Criterion films — a higher quality selection than the Amazon rental selection — and can stream without additional cost. This poses a problem for Amazon's business model.

Of course, Amazon DID try to buy Hulu, until Hulu took itself off the market. And despite Amazon's interest, Hulu is still not yet available through the Amazon Appstore.

Still, let's not forget that Amazon has proved it knows how to corner a market. Just look at what it has done to the book publishing business. So who’s to say that the company won't make similar inroads into TV and movie collections — buying up libraries, or perhaps even producing its own content, as Netflix is doing?

A final question. What will Amazon do about live TV? 

Technologically, there’s no question that the Kindle Fire could handle it; Android solutions have long been available to bring live cable service to mobile devices, through gadgets including the Slingbox and Orb-TV.

“TV Everywhere” — a cable industry concept — lets you watch live or near-live cable programming on your mobile devices, provided you have a cable TV account with the same programs. Already, CNN live, HBO Go with its bulging libraries, and Comcast/Xfinity’s slate of on-demand shows are available on your mobile phone. TNT/TBS and Cinemax are moving in the same direction. Nearby, Comcast is experimenting nationally with Anyplay, which will bring your live TV to wherever you are — much like the Slingbox-type systems.

How will Amazon respond?

The Kindle Fire is Amazon’s newest enticement for making us all Amazon content consumers. And as consumers, we clearly all want this device and understand the buying relationship we’re getting with it. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few issues about its future that still need answering.


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