e-Literate featured blogger Audrey Watters has a really good write-up of the issues she has found with the Kindle Fire for education on her own blog. I share her concerns.
I’d like to offer a perspective on some of the upside potential of the device.
The challenge of building a competitive tablet for less than half the price of an iPad is an enormously difficult one. Heck, most entrants haven’t been able to build something compelling for even the same price or more. To begin with, Apple’s market heft and aggressive contracting practices have given them a lock on the best prices for a lot of the components needed to produce a quality tablet (touch screens, batteries, flash memory, etc.). In addition, the Android operating system just doesn’t have the maturity and app ecosystem that iOS has for the tablet yet. In other words, tablet makers have to overcome both higher component prices and a less mature operating system against a heavily entrenched competitor. Not an easy hill to climb.
But what if you essentially cede the native apps market? Conventional wisdom says that would be suicide. The apps ecosystem make the device. But maybe not for Amazon. In the short term, they have lots and lots of stuff besides apps that they can sell to these devices. They know people will buy Kindles; this is a step up. In the not-so-long term, there is an open question about whether native apps will continue to dominate over HTML5 and the open web. If your focus is on media consumption and the web, maybe you don’t need either the most hardware horsepower or the best OS to deliver a quality experience. Over time, the internet becomes your app store. And if you already have a first-rate ecommerce system (which Amazon does), then companies with quality HTML5-based apps who want to sell to Kindle Fire users will have that infrastructure to do so.
Amazon is cleverly using their cloud infrastructure to improve browsing performance, giving them an opportunity to potentially leapfrog the competition on HTML5-based performance while still running on cheap hardware. By preprocessing a lot of the web content, they also are providing a service that is vital for on-campus use. Most schools have chronically underpowered wifi networks connected to sadly thin internet pipes. If most or all students are connecting live to the web in every class, that could put a substantial strain on the campus networks. If Amazon Fire significantly improves the network traffic required for web surfing (particularly complex HTML5 apps), that could make a huge difference to schools in terms of feasibility and cost of supporting universal connectivity for students in classrooms.
I would argue that a $200 tablet with a quality browsing experience is a big deal for education even if there are no native apps at all. It’s the thin client reborn for the Age of Touch. For a product like MindTap, which is entirely web-based, it could be a massive market accelerator. The same is true for, say, FlatWorldKnowledge’s products. The fact that Amazon can monetize the product through content sales is great for them but possibly at least partially beside the point from the perspective of an educational tablet. I’d love to see a higher end model with an 11-inch screen, but other than that, I think Fire could be a really compelling offering.
Now, there are still a lot of questions to be answered. How much does Amazon’s Silk browser really improve the browsing experience and reduce network traffic? How well does it support HTML5? Is it a net privacy plus because it proxies browsing behavior and protects us from the prying eyes of Google and others, or are we trading one Big Brother for another by giving Amazon all that information about our browsing habits? Still, I think it has a lot of potential to be a game changer—provided that we’re willing to throw out a lot of what we think we know about what makes a tablet “good.”