Even for the most dedicated fans, carrying an iPad around can be a hassle. If you're not regularly in the business of traveling with a briefcase or handbag in tow, you're forced to either tote the 9.5 by 7.3 inch device by hand (inconvenient) or schlep it in a dedicated bag (but are you really that nerdy?).
So imagine my delight when shortly after I started using the Kindle Fire, I slipped it into the back pocket of my jeans. It was a great distillation of what the Kindle is - very different from the iPad, but a great and useful niche device that, at $199, is a true bargain. What follows is a device review and a focus on what the Kindle means to marketers and advertisers.
Unboxing and setup are both seamless and beautiful. Amazon has adopted some of the great tricks from Cupertino and blended in the vibe of Amazon's "hassle free packaging." But where the product gets creative is with the "first run" experience. The tablet nicely shows you where the key parts of the interface are and generally provides a manual on-screen. Amazon has taken some heat for needing a first-run experience on the Fire, but I think it's always a nice thing to provide for consumers.
The device is solid and feels good in the hand; perhaps a little too solid for its size, but that's what a big piece of Gorilla Glass means - weight. When you compare it to the smallest Kindle, it feels like a brick, but it's certainly a good bit lighter than the iPad. Battery life is amazing; on standby, the device can sit for two weeks and only lose a quarter of its charge. The processor powers it well - animations are snappy and it doesn't hang too much. Speakers are tinny, but that's expected in such a small package.
The Kindle Fire has serious button issues. Number one: no dedicated volume buttons. Listen, I like Steve Jobs as much as anybody else, but this no buttons fetish is getting a little crazy. Aesthetics aside, a media player without volume buttons makes turning the volume up or down into an acrobatic exercise. If I'm listening to music in an app, I have to tap to get the controls for the app, tap to exit it, tap to bring up the running apps, tap the currently playing song, and then I get to tap to adjust the volume. Fun.
Furthermore, the only button the Fire does have - the power button - is so subtle that you can't find it when you want it and the location means it's constantly pressed by mistake, locking the screen. This is a big complaint on Fire message boards.
One button also means that when I'm in an app, there is often no way to get anywhere else in the system instantly. I end up in the same process I describe above; it's crazily frustrating.
Since it's hard to separate hardware and software, let's get deeper into it, because this is where Amazon has a lot of work to do. Kindle uses a forked version of Android "Gingerbread" with a custom user experience on top. But basically it behaves like an Android tablet, which is great for running apps and rendering websites in a predictable way. Prior to the software update, things were shaky, but now it's solid - it just isn't particularly well designed.
The home screen is particularly funky. You might want to be careful about what you look at, because whatever you've viewed last is what the home screen shows. Which can either make you look like an expert on quantum electrodynamics or a Kardashian-loving boob who listens to Ke$ha. Caveat emptor.
Pinching and zooming works well, and is a big improvement on anything but the iPad, and near iPad levels.
Much has been made about the browser not being very good, but those critics are missing the point; look at the Fire's main navigation: the options are Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, and Web. The web is clearly the least important purpose of this device (but as an added bonus, Flash fully works and works well, providing a nice advantage over iOS).
With iPad 2, Apple made a big shift from a pure content consumption model to a content creation model. It hasn't been 100 percent successful, but some of Apple's own apps (notably Garage Band and Keynote) have made strides. The Kindle doesn't try to be anything more than a consumption device and that's refreshing. It's a great sized window into books, video, music, and of course apps through the Android app store.
But what really sets the Kindle apart is the way it's integrated with Amazon's core business of e-commerce. When you buy the Kindle Fire, you automatically get one month of Amazon Prime for free. Initially I wasn't so excited about this; I've always resisted getting Prime, feeling like it's not hard to group my Amazon shipments into orders of $25-plus, but it was a nice option that quickly became a must-have.
That's because Amazon is quietly and brilliantly building a formidable Netflix competitor. Amazon Prime gives you Prime Instant Videos - currently 15,000 titles that users stream for free. And the price of Prime - $79 per year - makes it cheaper than a Netflix streaming-only solution.
While Netflix still has many more titles than Prime, the Netflix streaming catalogue is actually shrinking while Amazon's grows. Throw in free two-day shipping on most Amazon items on top of the streaming library and you have both an amazing deal and an amazing market position. And the Kindle is a very good video viewer. It's a perfect size for a personal player and delivers sharp, excellent-looking images.
Prime is turning into quite an infrastructure - in addition to Prime streaming on the Kindle Fire, members can also stream videos to an increasing number of TVs and Blu-ray players. There are also rumors of Amazon creating its own original content. Add in perks like book rental along with the aforementioned Prime benefit of free two-day shipping on most Amazon items and what emerges is a compelling ecosystem alternative to Apple's - the first, in my opinion.
What Does Kindle Fire Mean for Advertisers and Marketers?
The Android tablet advertising market is unbelievably fragmented. At the moment, there is nothing resembling the unified platform of iAd. This is a huge opportunity for one of the mobile advertisers to create a simple software development kit (SDK) that allows agencies and companies to create HTML5 ads. Why HTML5? The massive variety of size and aspect ratio for Android tablets means that building an ad with native Android code means you need to resize it scores of times to ensure it will display properly on all the hardware.
Amazon, of course, isn't eager for advertisers to take over its tablet, since the entire device functions in some way as an ad for its service. So the push becomes about using the tablet to effectively market.
More than ever, brands need to ensure that they not only have a tablet-friendly version of their website, but that the site displays properly on all of the most important hardware. Most have focused on the iPad, but those sites are going to need to be re-optimized for Android and for smaller screens. For marketers, that is job one. Beyond that, the same app rules that apply to iPad and other Android tablets are as important for Kindle Fire; create something with a value exchange, make it cool and interesting, ensure that if it's not your core business, you're not trying to charge people to install your advertising and update frequently.
The rumors of Apple's 7" tablet may mean that Kindle Fire has some company in its highly utile form factor, but Apple's ecosystem is becoming more closed, not less. Kindle Fire and its surely forthcoming descendants represent the central device in the Amazon environment, the first real choice consumers have to be able to provide them with nearly everything in Apple's world. Hopefully Amazon will continue to keep prices low and use the Fire to amplify its traditional e-commerce business. That will at least keep this race interesting for some time to come.
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Andrew Solmssen serves as managing director of Possible's Los Angeles office, leading the firm's West Coast client teams and determining best practices for engagement management.
He previously served as managing director at digital firm Schematic, where he played a key role in developing some of the earliest advertising models for delivering broadcast content via the Internet. Andrew was also responsible for providing strategic guidance to clients such as Comcast, ABC Television, and NBC Universal in the areas of digital strategy, content distribution, mobile entertainment, and Internet TV. Before Schematic, Andrew served as executive producer at Web design and consulting firm Kaufman Patricof Enterprises.
A frequent speaker at industry events such as Digital Hollywood and CES, Andrew is also regularly quoted by business and trade media on the topics of digital advertising and technology innovation. Prior to his involvement in digital media, Andrew lived in Namibia as part of the Harvard Institute for International Development.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @asolmssen.
December 12, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT