First Thoughts on Amazon's New Kindle Family

Today Amazon announced a new line up of Kindles.  Every member of the Kindle family was updated, from the e-Ink based Kindles, to the Kindle Fire.  An all new Kindle was announced as well: the Kindle Fire HD.  Amazon is supporting these products with some innovative data plans and parental controls.  More than any other contender in the post-PC market, Amazon is showing that there are other go-to-market strategies than copying Apple.  I love it.

The New Kindle Paperwhite

I love my iPad, and I take it with me everywhere.  With the right workflow and apps, I can do most of what I do on a MacBook but without the weight, heat and lower battery life.  The iPad is a great consumption device, but I also find it to be a good email and writing (prose and code) experience too.  Even basic presentation work is possible.  Amazon's Kindle app offers the best reading experience on the iPad, and the retina display makes for very sharp text.  What's not to love about the iPad as an e-reader?  Size and weight.

The new Kindle Paperwhite

The new Kindle Paperwhite

Longer reading sessions can become cumbersome on the iPad, and if they are late in the day you may find your battery nearly depleted.  Any e-reader built on eInk doesn't share these limitations.  E-Ink devices have battery lives measured in weeks, and also can be made very thin and light.  For all it's advantages for reading, eInk isn't perfect.  The screens are lower contrast and lower resolution that LCD displays, and they also don't glow.  Amazon has addressed both of these issues with the new Kindle Paperwhite.  It's available in for $119 as a WiFi product, or $179 with 3G networking too. Both editions include a screen light for low light situations.  Amazon also slashed the price of the basic Kindle to $69.

Even though I own an iPad, I'm going to get one of the paperwhite Kindles.  My whole reading library is on the Amazon ecosystem already, and my reading habits stress even the long lasting batter of the iPad.  These devices are a no-brainer for avid readers, and in my mind this refresh pushes Amazon back in front of Banes & Nobel's Nook.

The New Kindle Fire

Don't call it the Kindle 2.  Like Apple's iPad line, Amazon is eschewing version numbers for its Kindle products.  I think that's smart–outside technology products very few consumer brands use version numbers.  Can you imagine hoping over to the GM dealer to pick up a new Tacoma 17?  This is a more human friendly way to market tech products.

Amazon's new Kindle Fire will ship September 14 for $159.  It has twice the RAM of the original Fire, a faster processor, and a longer lasting battery.  Hopefully the additional RAM will address some of the issues with responsiveness seen with the original Kindle Fire.  Google has put a lot of effort into UI performance with Android 4.1, and the Nexus 7 is reported to be a very responsive device.  If Amazon fails to address this issue, they're going to have a hard time gaining traction against Apple and Google.

The new Kindle Fire

The new Kindle Fire

Although Apple is rumored to be near the release of a smaller iPad, today Amazon's main competition in this smaller/cheaper tablet market is Google.  The Nexus 7 is an impressive device, but Amazon is really putting pressure in terms of price.  Amazon has an industry leading library of content, so if the new Kindle Fire is responsive it could be a real success in the market.

Introducing the Kindle Fire HD

Amazon's entry into the full size tablet market is interesting.  Instead of going with a 9.7 inch screen, the Kindle HD is 8.9.  Interestingly, the display 254 DPI, rather close to the Retina iPad's 264.  At $299, it's priced the same as Apple's iPad 2.  Amazon is clearly encouraging customers to keep their data on its servers–the Kindle HD only has 16 GB of flash storage.  That's a solid strategy when Internet connectivity is available and fast.  Anyone who has tried to consumer music or movies on a plane or in the airport will tell you that assuming consistent Internet connectivity isn't always safe.

The Kindle Fire HD

The Kindle Fire HD

The specifications on the device are impressive, and the price is great.  I withhold judgement on the form factor until I can get my hands on one.  I've never had a great experience with a 7" tablet so far, but I'm interested to see what 8.9" is like compared to 9.7" in terms of usability on a touch screen.

More concerning is the tool set for developers when creating Kindle apps.  The diversity of the Android product ecosystem means that developers can't make the same assumptions about display resolutions on these devices that they can make on iOS.  The result is that Android apps are often blurry, pixelated or scaled oddly.  I don't see how the Kindle Fire HD does anything but contribute to this problem.  This is not a purely aesthetic issue.  App usability can suffer as UI elements are dynamically resized in ways the developer could not predict.

The most interesting thing to me is the pricing for the 4G LTE equipped Kindle Fire HD.: $499. This is a larger price increase that you would see on the iPad, but the data plan for the Kindle Fire HD is $49 a year.  Now that's only for 250 MB per month, but the same plan on an iPad is $15 a month.  If you restrict media streaming to WiFi networks, 250 MB per month is not an unreasonable amount of data for many people.

As usual, Amazon is working to disrupt the revenue model of their competitors and suppliers.  I'm not sure how they convinced a carrier partner to go along with this–it could affect consumer's psychological evaluation of data pricing.

I hope the Kindle Fire HD succeeds.  I can't see giving up my iPad, but for people who are mainly looking for web browsing and content consumption the Kindle Fire HD seems to be a credible alternative.

FreeTime and X-Ray

Perhaps more than any other device, tablets get handed around the family.  Children are drawn to the touch interaction model.  There are many quality educational and game app available for both iOS and Android.  While iOS offers good parental controls, enabling and disabling them is not easy.  Apple's subtext is clear: use one device per family member.

Amazon is adding user profiles and corresponding parental controls to the Fire.  The idea is to make it easy to pass a device around the household, and make sure that all the apps and media are age-appropriate.  Amazon also wants to make this intuitive.  Based on the number of calls I get, it is neither obvious nor intuitive. to setup individual iCloud accounts with shared store accounts across iOS devices.  Many families will be won over if Amazon nails this.

Amazon also added a technology called X-Ray designed to help you discover new content, easily.  One of my my gripes with Amazon is discovery.  It's easy to order something from Amazon if you know what you want, but traditional retailers offer a much better browsing experience.  The write ups on Xray don't tell me much, so I'm looking forward to seeing this in action.

Standing Out

I wish more device makers would emulate Amazon's approach to the post PC market.  Amazon is going after the value segment without trying to copy Apple's work.  Microsoft is similarly original, but so far they haven't had the same success in the market place.  I hope the new Kindles inspire some of the Android partners to break new ground an innovate for their customers.  Nicely done, Amazon.

Finally, here are some spots released by Amazon to promote their new products.

Even with The Daily, the iPad still needs help for news

I've been an active an avid iPad users since launch day. My iPad has become an essential piece of my daily life, and I constantly find new and wonderful uses for it. In fact, I'm typing this post on my iPad in a hotel lounge using the on-screen keyboard.

I'm an avid reader, and I do a great deal of reading on the iPad. I read the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and USA Today every day. I subscribe to many magazines, both as native apps and using Zinio. The iPad is a really wonderful reading platform, plus its much easier to travel with than a stack of newspapers, magazines ands books.

Speaking of books, I do all my reading with the Kindle app. I was a Kindle early adopter, but I enjoy the Kindle app more than the standalone device. There are two things the Kindle has done amazingly well at as a newspaper/magazine reader that the IPad didn't match. First, subscriptions to publications on the Kindle are inexpensive, whereas the norm on the iPad is to pay cover price per issue. Second, when you subscribe to a publication the Kindle, Amazon automatically delivers new issues while the device is idle, so you never have to sit and wait for a new issue.

On the iPad, each launch of a newspaper app is met with a loading screen while the app downloads enough content to display a home screen. Even when that loads, there are frequent delays as additional content is loaded. The situation is even worse for magazines, where issues can take 30 minutes or more to download. Who has 30 minutes per issue?

I had two hopes for today's announcement for The Daily: subscription billing and background, push downloads. Subscription billing is here, but manual downloads remain. Even The Daily, which is built from the ground up for iPad has the same "loading" behavior as the traditional newspaper apps.

Obviously content for iPad publications is an order of magnitude larger than Kindle publications. This is exacerbated by publications which are using Adobe's publishing tools. I don't care. As a consumer, the iPad will never be as convenient as mailed magazines or delivered newspapers until new issues are waiting for me when I wake up.

This iPad Thing

It’s nearly impossible to visit a website today that offers news or user posting today without running across Apple’s new iPadMashable’s coverage shows Twitter mentions at truly obscene levels.  Love it or hate it, you can’t deny the impact the device has already had.  I believe the praise, and the criticism, are well deserved.

I’m a serial early-adopter.  I own most of the devices the iPad seeks to supplant.  Here’s my early assessment of the iPad and it’s role in the market.

iPad the eBook

I’m a Kindle user.  I had the first Kindle, and I have a Kindle 2.  I’ve watched the Nook, the Skiff and the Que with great interest.  I’m also an avid reader.  I read several books a month, subscribe to multiple magazines.  I read my news online, as I find the latency of newspaper bothersome and the format cumbersome.  The Kindle has been a dream for book reading.  I have a large library of new material available via the Kindle store anywhere there’s 3G coverage.  The e-Ink display is quite easy on the eyes for multi-hour reading sessions, largely thanks to its reflexive nature (there is no backlight–as you see with the printed page).

It seems to me that the iPad may reverse this equation.  The LED backlight supporting the IPS LCD display means the announced iBooks app renders books far more artfully than the Kindle, and in color.  The ePub format offers native support for GIF, JPEG and PNG images.  I’m concerned that the bright screen may ultimately fatigue the eyes over continuous hours of viewing.  You don’t state at your phone or computer screen for as long or as intently as you do a book in most cases.  Likewise, LCD screens aren’t all the readable in sunlight, and I see little support that the iPad screen is any different.  The iBooks app has a much smaller library than the Kindle as well, although I find this mitigated to a large degree by the availability of a Kindle app for the iPhone.  iPhone apps, of course, work on the iPad.

The Kindle clearly wins on battery life.  Frequent travelers know that it’s often trying to get charge time while on the go.

Of course, books are not the only content available on the Kindle.  You can get magazines and newspaper subscriptions as well.  They are easy to purchase and are automatically delivered to the Kindle.  Unfortunately, the magazine experience is poor on the Kindle.  Glossy, 4 color printing really defines what it is to read a magazine.  Rich photographs and illustrations mix sublimely with the copy.  For content that isn’t time sensitive, like product reviews and deep analysis of current events, the magazine offers a superior experience to not only the Kindle, but indeed to the web.

Consider the newspaper instead.  Color is less of an issue, but the power of a newspaper is not the quality of its printing.  Here the format is the king.  The large size of a newspaper makes it easy to scan a large, diverse body of information quickly, and then focus on content you want to review in depth with a couple of folds.  The very linear orientation of the Kindle UI works against this model–it’s easiest to read something from start to finish.  Scanning is painful thanks to e-Ink’s glacial refresh rate.

I see real potential for the iPad to revolutionize not only book publishing, but newspaper and magazine as well.  The iPad addresses both limitations: the screen is in brilliant color, and the Touch UI makes scanning a breeze.  Like the Kindle (and unlike computers) the iPad is a comfortable format for reading almost anywhere.

The New York Times app demoed today shows the promise here, but I think the app model is wrong.  Apps are too hard to develop, and I’d rather buy newspapers and magazines along side my books.  Apple needs to build an extensible format like ePub, but with greater support for interaction and rich media.  Heck, it could be HTML in WebKit for all I care, just make it easy for old media companies to make beautiful content for the device, but give them the ability to serve video and interactive elements alongside it.  People will pay for it in a way they will not pay for something seen in Safari.

iPad the Netbook/Mobile Internet Device

The computer and consumer electronics industries are focused on filling the gap that exists between the smartphone and the notebook computer.  We’ve seen netbooks running Windows and Linux.  We’ve seen netbooks oriented toward cloud computing with no local storage.  We’ve seen tablets and Mobile Internet Devices.  None have made the splash that the iPad did today.

Steve Jobs was very direct today that Apple believes the iPad is the right approach to a device and platform that fits that space.  As a rabid capitalist, I believe there’s plenty of room in the market for multiple approaches, and that the competition is good for the competitors and consumers.  The iPad does draw a strong philosophical line in the sand.

The iPad, like the iPhone, is geared toward simplicity and elegance over flexibility.  The technologically savvy cry against the lack of Flash, multitasking or ports.  In the netbook space, many people debate the merits of local vs. cloud based storage.  On a netbook, you choose what your OS is, and you can install whatever apps from whatever source you please.

On the iPad, you don’t have to know what Flash, multitasking, ports, Operating Systems or cloud based storage is.  You just use the device.  There’s no visible file system.  No obvious distinction is made between local and cloud storage.  Apps only install via the App Store.  This offers great protection from malware, but much less flexibility for developers.

The inclusion of iWork shows Apple is making the iPad a content creation platform, instead of a pure content consumption platform.  I’ll be interested to see if Microsoft Office comes to the iPad, and how Mac/PC application devs approach this development.

iPad the future of computing

It’s clear that Apple sees the iPhone/iPad model as the future of computing, and is actively migrating their product family toward it.  The iPod is evolving via the iPod Touch and the iPad pushes the iPhone model much farther into “computer” territory.  I wonder if Apple sees PCs and Macs as HAM Radios in 20 years: tools for a specific, passionate niche.

With the iPhone and iPad, you touch information.  There is less abstraction than we see with the keyboard and mouse, although Apple’s support of keyboard on the iPad shows they understand the efficiency of that device.  I hope Apple is busily pushing this model toward the Mac and OS X.  While touch-only is a poor model for displays on desktops and notebooks, the compromise offered via multi-touch trackpads and mice isn’t enough.  Why can’t we use a mouse and direct touch?

Also, when does the iPad get a camera?


Kindle's almost amazing

I don't have a Kindle yet, but I do plan to get one soon.  After reading far too many blogs and magazine articles about the device, I almost got the fever.  Despite the fact that there seems to be a pretty even split between those who love the device and those who loathe it, I'm still really excited about the potential of the technology.

I'm an avid reader, but I don't have the time to go browse bookstores.  My favorite time to read is when I travel, but books are a drag in terms of bulk and weight when I'm hoping from plane to plane.  The idea of carrying--and adding to--my library on a reasonably sized device is very appealing.

The Kindle as it stands is far from perfect.  It's expensive, the e-ink could be better, and for goodness sakes it needs multiple fonts.  I still think something like the Kindle will one day to do books and magazines what the iPod is doing to physical music media.

Or at least I did until 30 minutes ago when I pulled a beautifully illustrated, large format, color children's book off the shelf to read to Madison at bedtime.  We're a LONG way from matching that experience with an e-reader.

Books are really not great in terms of environmental impact, they take lots of space and  they're prone to wear out--but they'll be with us a long, long time.