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How Amazon Can Fix the Kindle in 2012

I have been an unabashed and vocal fan of Amazon’s Kindle devices and, more important, its Kindle platform since the first Kindle eBook reader arrived in 2007. And over the intervening years, it’s only gotten better. What started out as a wonderful but overly expensive device backed by wonderful library of content has matured into a far-reaching and extensive stable of inexpensive devices, and PC and web applications and mobile apps, all backed by the world’s biggest library of electronic books and periodicals. When it comes to reading, there’s Kindle and then there’s everything else.

And then this year happened. This year, for the first time, Amazon stumbled. It released a new generation of Kindle devices, each of which is flawed in some important way. And it released the Kindle Fire, the first Android-based tablet device to put a chink in the Apple iPad’s previously impenetrable armor. That device, in particularly, is deeply flawed, and it needs to be overhauled in major ways.

Here, then, are some suggestions for how Amazon can fix the Kindle in 2012. The dedicated eBook readers require just a few changes, but the Kindle Fire needs to be rethought.

Kindle (base model)

Amazon currently offers two versions of its base model Kindle, the cheap base version with Special Offers, which costs $79, and a $109 version without the ads. I don’t find Amazon’s Special Offers to be intrusive or even unwelcome, but it’s neat that you can later pay to remove them if you’d like. So there’s no reason not to pay the lower price and see how it goes. But the late 2011 base model Kindle is lacking one key feature, or option. And that is:

3G. Amazon’s other e-ink based Kindle devices all include a 3G-based wireless feature called Whispernet as an option. Looking at the Kindle Touch, for example, we can see that the 3G feature is expensive: The versions that include this feature are $50 more expensive than the versions that don’t. In my article,  How Apple Can Fix the iPad in 2012, I noted that that device has far too many (18) hardware versions to choose from, and so I’m going to be a bit contradictory here, since Amazon is playing in a different (lower cost) market. And it goes like this: Amazon needs to add a 3G option to the base Kindle. I would have happily paid the price difference, and I’m sure others would too. That said, as the price on this functionality comes down, perhaps Amazon could--as Apple should--simply offer 3G and Wi-Fi on all Kindles and not offer separate versions. It’s getting confusing.

You can read  my review of the base Kindle for more information about this device.

Kindle Touch

Also new to late 2011, the Kindle Touch is a usability disaster on many levels. Rather than rehashing why that’s the case here, I’ll direct you instead to  my review of the Kindle Touch. It’s just too painful. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to fix the Touch’s most pressing problems. And it goes like this:

Software update. If you’ve spent as much time as I have with all the various Kindles and mobile/PC/web Kindle apps, you may be aware that Amazon has a strange and diverse range of user interfaces for accomplishing the same tasks across these different Kindle versions. And the biggest weakness of the Kindle Touch, in my opinion, is that this touch-based device doesn’t follow the user interface paradigms established first on the touch-based Kindle mobile apps. That UI--which basically involves tapping the center of the screen while reading to bring up the normally hidden menus and other choices--would work great on the Touch. And Amazon should adopt it there, for both consistency and usability.

Hardware fixes. There are some other Kindle Touch issues that can’t be fixed with software. Amazon should move its new devices back to a slider-style On/Off switch since the current button (used also on the Kinde base model and Kindle Fire) is far to easy to accidentally trigger while you’re reading, especially on the heavier two devices (Touch and Fire). And frankly, I don’t see why even a touch-based, dedicated eBook reader can’t have navigation buttons, if only for page turns. It’s easier and more natural, and those who really do prefer touch for some reason could turn off their use through software. Just a thought.

And now we get to Amazon’s real problem child. The tablet.

Kindle Fire

There are compromises and then there are compromises. And for a certain group of users--millions of them, I’m sure--the Kindle Fire is an acceptable compromise. It costs just $200, which sort of negates many complaints: As I’ve noted many times, you could purchase three Kindle Fires for the price of one mid-level iPad and still have money left over for apps and content. But saving money doesn’t cure all ills, and there’s a reason why millions more users have opted instead for Apple’s luxury tablet, even though many of them probably can’t afford it. The iPad does more, of course. But it’s also more refined, more beautiful, and more desirable.

Fixing the Kindle Fire will not involve making the device into an iPad-like sort-of-computer. Apple has specific and broad aims for its own tablet, and while I do expect that company to turn the iPad into a Mac replacement over time, I see no need for Amazon to do the same for the Fire, at least not yet. No, the Kindle Fire is purely a consumption device, an entertainment box. It has less lofty goals than the iPad and maybe always should. But even in this limited capacity, the Fire doesn’t get many things right.There are obvious fixes needed. And the big ones will require new hardware.

(For more information about the Kindle Fire, please  read my review and view my  photo gallery.)

Hardware buttons. Many reviewers have taken Apple to task for its almost absurd hatred of device buttons, and many users will tell you that they regularly tap the area to the left of the Home button on their iPhones, expecting (and wanting) the Back button that doesn’t exist. I do this all the time. But Amazon has taken Apple’s anti-button mantra and raised the bar to absurd levels. This thing includes just one button, a tiny power button that is paradoxically too hard to p     ress when you mean to and too easy to mis-press when you don’t. It’s the worse possible design.

The Kindle Fire desperately needs at least four hardware buttons: A Home button, a Back button, and two volume buttons. Even Apple, after shipping the original iPod touch without  volume buttons, fixed that issue in v2. Volume buttons are just necessary, and if you use the Fire at all, you’ve run into situations were the app or user interface at hand provided no access to the software-based volume controls. That’s ridiculous.

Speakers. The Kindle Fire actually does feature two speakers, compared to the iPad, which has just one, but … wait for it … they’re both on the same side of the device.Seriously, Amazon? I had argued in the past that the iPad should have perhaps four speakers so that the sound coming from the device was well-rounded and correct regardless of which way it was being held at the time. But the Fire’s speaker placement only amplifies (ahem) this problem. It makes me wonder if my hearing is going.

Docking port and video out. As a pure consumption device, the Kindle is a great choice for enjoying TV shows and movies, music, and other entertainment, especially so if you’re comfortable with using Amazon’s integrated services or, to a lesser degree, supported third party services like Netflix. But it’s a solitary experience, and thanks to the device’s 7-inch screen, you’re pretty much going to be enjoying all that content by yourself. What this device needs is some form of video-out, perhaps through a docking solution, which would allow you to share the content on an HDTV screen with others.

Storage. If you’re interested in a Kindle Fire, you can have any one you want, as long as its black and it comes with just 8 GB of storage. This isn’t enough for people who wish to load up some TV and shows and movies and enjoy that content offline, as on a plane. And Amazon could address this in one of two ways: By offering multiple versions of the device with different storage allotments (16, 32, and 64 GB as with the iPad, perhaps) or, better still, by providing microSD expansion. I’d be ecstatic to purchase an 8 GB Fire... if only I could expand that storage to 40 GB courtesy of an inexpensive microSD card.

3G. Before late 2011, all Kindle devices had an option for free 3G-based Whispernet, which I really rely on. This year, two of the three new Kindle devices don’t even offer Whispernet as an option. And that stinks. On the Fire, I could see Amazon relegating 3G to book and Kindle content downloads only, and I’m sure the reason it’s not there is that hackers would figure out a way to make it more broadly available. But the issue is that Kindle users expect this kind of functionality. And now it’s not there … on what is otherwise the best Kindle of all.

User interface. Much has been made about how the Carousel user interface on the Kindle Fire makes it too easy for someone else to pick up your device and see what you’ve been doing, often with embarrassing results. But that issue could be fixed by using a PIN lock, not sharing your Amazon account with others, and by buying multiple Fires; remember, these things are cheap. No, the problem with the Carousel UI is that it stinks, and that’s true for people who never share their Fire at all as well. It needs to be replaced. I’m not a big fan of the “grid of icons” thing, but even Amazon’s similar “bookshelf”-style sub-UI, as seen on the home page’s Favorites/pinned area is preferable to the Carousel. At least find some options.

Truth is, Amazon is good about fix and improving its products, and if the original Kindle line is any indication, I expect rapid and steady improvement to the Kindle Fire. It’s just that many of these fixes require new hardware, a situation that will strand first-gen users with a less-than-ideal device. That wasn’t an issue with the first iPad, and while Apple is no stranger to getting early adopters to upgrade at great expense with every passing version change, that’s not Amazon’s market. At some point, they’ll need to settle on the right baseline from a hardware perspective. And that’s not happening with this first Fire.
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