Amazon's Kindle Fire: Not the Android Tablet Schools Have Been Waiting For

At a press event in NYC today, Amazon officially unveiled what many have long been waiting for: its Android tablet. TheKindle Fire is the latest entry into the tablet market, which up until today has been so utterly dominated by Apple's iPad that it's hard to even call it a market.

And despite plenty of pronouncements that the new Kindle Fire will be no "iPad killer," it's hard to deny that the price point for this device ($199) will definitely give a lot of consumers pause before they shell out the $500 or so for the Apple device.

There's little debate here that the iPad remains the superior piece of hardware with a superior app ecosystem. But as GigaOm's Mathew Ingram points out, we shouldn't be all that shocked that Amazon is delivering an inferior device. Apple is, after all, a hardware company, whereas Amazon is an online retail company, one that once specialized solely in books but that is now a major player in digital media as well.
"In some ways, Amazon and Apple are polar opposites at least when it comes to the way they are approaching the tablet market. As my colleague Erica Ogg has pointed out, Apple's main interest is in selling hardware, and it uses content as a way of doing that. It arguably had no real interest in becoming a music powerhouse, except that controlling access to those songs would give it a powerful lever with which to sell more iPods. Amazon, however, sees devices like the Kindle Fire as a way to sell more content, and that makes it simultaneously more appealing as a partner for media companies and at the same time a potentially more dangerous one as well." (emphasis added)
That last sentence should give those in education pause.

Amazon's announcement today came with no Steve Jobs-like invocation about the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. I don't predict (in the near future at least) advertisements touting the Fire as a learning tool.

At its core, Amazon's move today is about selling content. Amazon content. That may be good news for reading -- recent statistics say e-reader owners buy and read more books. It may be good for loyal Amazon customers -- for those who want to buy what Amazon sells. It may be good for the media companies with which Amazon has partnered. But as Ingram asks at the end of his article, we have to ask what happens when Amazon's interests diverge from those media partners. We should ask what happens when they diverge from consumers' (and educators') interests as well.

The Revolution Will Not Be Kindled

What does this have to do with education, you might ask? Well, as I have come to expect anytime any big tech company makes a big gadget announcement, there have been a number of blog posts today proclaiming that the Kindle Fire will usher in the "next generation of 1:1," will "revolutionize education," and so on. Crikey, and just when the reconstruction was beginning after the iPad revolution too. How very unsettling. How very disruptive.

I'm pretty skeptical about this revolution, and if indeed this is one then, to misquote the anarchist Emma Goldman, it's not a revolution I'd like to dance to.

Now, I have no doubt that Amazon's tablet will be a wildly successful commercial device, don't get me wrong. Hell, as someone who's a fairly loyal Amazon customer, I'll probably buy one myself. But do I think that this is the tablet device schools have been waiting for? No. Not remotely. The price point may sound appealing, but those who are looking for a tech bargain here should read some of the fine print.

How the Kindle is Failing Schools Already

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a story on MindShift about the struggles that school libraries are facing when it comes to making the move to digital books. The librarians I spoke to talked about their schools' efforts to offer students e-readers and e-books, but they all pointed to one of the major barriers to adoption: DRM. That is, there are severe restrictions stopping the content schools purchase from being shared across devices. It means that e-books from Amazon can't be read on Nooks, and e-books from Barnes & Noble won't work on Kindles. It means e-books from iBooks can't be read on either. It means, oftentimes, that kids can't bring their own devices from home to use for library check-outs. While companies like OverDrive aim to make the content management easier for libraries, it's at a price point that not all schools can afford.

I have to wonder, if schools adopt the Kindle Fire, does that means they are required to make all textbook purchases from Amazon? I think so, unless, of course, Amazon allows other booksellers to put apps on the device. I guess that's possible. It also means that schools are using devices that do not support the ePUB open standard (or at least, Kindles currently do not handle ePUB. It is possible too that the Kindle Fire will allow other apps to do this.)

And it isn't simply a matter of Amazon having a monopoly over the e-book content. Buffy Hamilton, the Unquiet Librarian, wrote a blog post this summer about why her school librarywould not purchase more Kindles. She makes it clear that Kindles are not designed to work in a K-12 environment. For example, each device requires its own separate Amazon account -- a nightmare for managing accounts, devices, circulation and so on.

Her concerns aren't the only ones that librarians are raising about Amazon. Gary Price, the co-founder of InfoDocket has been pushing back on some of the hype surrounding Amazon's new library lending program. He has a long list of questions about privacy issues stemming from this new initiative: is Amazon collecting download information? Is Amazon saving library download information permanently? Will the library books you borrow be used by Amazon to provide recommendations of books for you to purchase? Is there a link to scrub all of your personal "library" data from Amazon's servers?

All these questions are compounded when you consider that the new Kindle Fire uses a special Amazon-only browser, Silk, one that promises a better mobile browsing experience -- powered in part by Amazon's cloud technology -- but one that is already raising a number of questions about privacy and tracking.

If Ingram's analysis of the Kindle Fire is right (and I think it is) and the new Kindle Fire is a way for Amazon to sell us more (Amazon) content, there are lots of questions for schools to ask before deciding that these cheaper tablets are the way to go. What information will be tracked? How will students' privacy be protected? What content will be available from outside the Amazon store?

"Open" versus "Closed"

I have a friend from high school who's now a district tech coordinator in New Hampshire. She's asked me several times about Android tablet recommendations as she's looking for alternatives to the Apple devices for her schools. She's a Windows person, bless her heart, and she doesn't want to have to deal with the Apple ecosystem.

That Apple ecosystem is by no means perfect for schools. Some of the questions about privacy and tracking I've mentioned above still exist for Apple products too. And while you can sync multiple devices to a single iTunes account (unlike the current Kindle set-up), it's still a huge pain in the ass to do so. Ask any teacher who's had to handle 30+ iPods to explain the procedure. It sucks.

But for schools who've been hoping for a vialble Android alternative to the Apple ecosystem, Amazon's announcement today doesn't feel like the right one. For all the arguments about Apple being "closed" and Android being "open," it's important to reiterate that the Amazon Fire is far from "open." Users will be directed to the Amazon store for books and movies and music and to the Amazon App Store for apps. That app store is carefully curated by Amazon, with far less of a selection (for better or worse) than the official Google one -- and one that's already got a reputation for being pretty unfriendly to third-party developers. (And considering all the hurdles one has to jump to get an app in the Apple App Store, that's really saying something.)

BYOD versus DRM

In some ways, all this concern over what tablets schools should/could/might buy is moot. I tend to think that the future of computing devices will be BYOD -- Bring Your Own Device. It'll be that way for businesses. It'll be that way for schools. Do you have an iPad? Awesome. Bring it to class. Do you have a Chromebook? Woohoo. Do you have a Kindle Fire? Whoopee. Bring your laptop. Bring your tablet. Bring your cellphone.

But if that's the case, then schools are going to have to look for digital content that is available across platform. That could mean looking for DRM-free resources, or at least for resources that aren't restricted to one particular platform or file format. That could mean turning to Web apps over native apps.

Does that mean turning to one big media technology company to handle content delivery (whether it's Apple or Amazon or Pearson)? Man, I sure hope not.


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