Government // Mobile & Wireless
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9/29/2011
08:15 AM
Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson
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Amazon Kindle Fire: Lingering Questions

Amazon's Kindle Fire cleanly carves out a spot for itself in a crowded tablet market—and leaves enterprise IT with some security to-do items.

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There were rumors of a quad-core tablet, of an Apple iPad killer at an HP TouchPad price, with code names like Coyote and Hollywood. Maybe that will come next year, but for now with the Kindle Fire Amazon has carved out a comfortable spot at the lower end of tablet-ville, the friendly neighborhood of the Barnes&Noble Nook and the occasional BlackBerry PlayBook price dip.

It is the anti-Apple. It is Android, but not its clumsy parts. It is simple, solid hardware; unremarkable, but visually compelling. And it is Amazon: the simplicity of consumption, executed in the cloud, cost-effective. It is $199. It is a new web browser, called Silk. It is no frills: spartan and clean.

One word of warning: Amazon curates Android apps for the Amazon appstore. That means you will only be able to get to a subset of all Android apps--a good thing, given the number of rogue, misbehaving Android apps, but a bad thing if you're expecting to guzzle down your normal helping of apps. I suspect the most popular ones will be available right away. The Kindle Fire will also ship with a native e-mail client, and Amazon says that there will be third party e-mail app options in the Amazon appstore.

The Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook share physical traits, including the 1024x600 screen resolution, the 169 ppi density, the 7-inch form factor. But the Kindle Fire costs $50 less, is slightly slimmer and trimmer, and Amazon boasts a healthier trove of content, thanks to its recent content deals with CBS, NBC and Fox. The company's Prime service, at $79 per year, provides customers with free product shipping, and free access to 11,000 movie and TV titles; the Kindle Fire comes with a 30-day trial subscription. Amazon, of course, also has a healthy catalog of books (more than a million) and songs (17,000 or more).

[ Get a closer look at Amazon's new tablet, straight from the launch event. See Amazon Kindle Fire: Visual tour. ]

Whispersync will also now support Amazon's Instant Video, so all of your Amazon content is always up-to-date and synced across any device running Amazon content services. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also demonstrated how you can wirelessly mirroring Kindle Fire content to a TV (Apple's iOS 5 will support this via AirPlay). Amazon's mirroring will work with any internet connected TV, or a device like a Roku box, and it is tied to the Amazon Prime service.

So it is more than the Nook. It is also possibly your personal movie screen--a competitor to Hulu and Netflix and iTunes.

It would also be a competitor to Lenovo's (yes, them) new IdeaPad A1, a 7-inch Android tablet priced at $199, capable of streaming Netflix. It, too, offers its own user experience -- Social Touch, App Wheel, and Launcher, which are all gizmos for quickly accessing commonly-used applications and services. It weighs less than a pound and measures about a half-inch thick, but it is powered by a mere single-core processor.

At a glance, Amazon's experience completely hides Android. Lenovo brings some good user interface ideas (so too do HTC and Samsung), but Android still lurks like the neighborhood Peeping Tom.

The Kindle Fire is also much less than an iPad and high-end Android tablets in many ways, including the lack of cameras, the absence of 3G (it is WiFi only) and the lack of external ports (it has USB, but no microSD, HDMI out, etc). However, it anticipates a world where mobile content is consumed from the cloud.

While Apple has iCloud and is moving many of its services to a cloud model, it's fair to say that Amazon has a wee bit of experience with the cloud, but ultimately consumers won't care about the cloud innards--only that it works.

One of the major points of comparison for buyers might come down to how much cloud storage you get for free. Amazon says that you get free unlimited storage with Amazon content. For $20 a year, you can also have unlimited storage for your music library from any source. For other content from other sources (videos, photos, documents), you get 5 GB for free and then it scales from there.

The Amazon Silk Browser is a new addition. Amazon argues that users shouldn't rely on a lightweight, low-powered device to do all of the heavy-duty processing that browsers require, so the company designed a distributed browser, where much of the heavy-duty processing happens in Amazon's Elastic Cloud. This cuts down on some of the TCP communications (handshakes and acknowledgements), and the server side renders anew common images, JavaScript and CSS.

Amazon claims this setup aggregates user behavior patterns, thereby predicting where you might go next, and caching that information for quicker site load times.

Sounds great, but we have a few lingering questions (we will provide an update once we hear from Amazon):

--First, how does Silk handle offline browsing?

--Second, is it a Webkit browser? How well does it handle HTML5? [Update: Amazon says that Silk is built on webkit and supports HTML5. Its Kindle cloud reader service is built on HTML5. We are still awaiting word on the level of compliance testing that Amazon has done, and how well it says it does on standard HTML5 benchmarks (for compliance at more granular levels).]

--Next, does it support Adobe AIR applications? [Update: Amazon is saying that some of the newsstand apps take advantage of AIR, but we are awaiting more details.]

--How well does it support Flash (It supports Flash, but how good is the Flash experience)?

Enterprise IT will surely face an influx of end-users trying to bring the Kindle Fire into the workplace, just as it has had to deal with iPads and other Android devices. As InformationWeek's Mike Davis reports, there will be some early disappointment:

"Amazon has decided that the Kindle Fire will not have access to the Google Android Market, where major MDM vendors put their apps. Only the Amazon Android Store is accessible, and MDM providers do not have their apps available in that store at the moment."

Davis notes that basic security functions may not work properly, and recommends talking to your mobile device management vendor now, setting up wireless access points to deny the Kindle Fire's Organizationally Unique Identifier (OUI), using vulnerability scanners to find unidentified (new) devices, and WiFi intrusion detection systems. He also suggests that IT simply let these devices on the network, but block access to system resources. And go ahead and purchase a few devices for IT to play around with and test.

Amazon is likely to make the Kindle Fire a winner, and while it won't supplant the iPad, it will contend for tablet dollars. Apple's mantra (voiced by Steve Jobs) has been: "It just works."

For Amazon and Bezos, it has been: "We're offering premium products at non-premium prices."

Perhaps both slightly overstated, but that, my friends, is the battleground now.

For more, check out InformationWeek editor Doug Henschen's video report with his take on Kindle Fire, from the launch event:

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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