Kindle Fire Does Not Fire the Imagination

For obvious reasons, I’m an iPad partisan, but I do want to see the tablet market get more competitive. For that reason, I was excited about the Amazon Kindle when it was announced and so I pre-ordered it immediately.

When it arrived, I had an out-of-the-box experience that, as it turns out, would be indicative of my feeling about the device in general: good, not great. As I powered it up for the first time, the Fire spent about five or ten minutes downloading and installing a software update, leaving me unable to even use it. Not great. But it installed the update just fine, and thereafter it was mostly a glitch-free experience. Good.

Daily Usage

I’ve been using — trying to use — the Fire regularly since. I carry it on the subway during my commute and read books on it, rather than on Apple’s iBooks, which is my preferred reading software. I also keep up with weekly issues of The New Yorker on it rather than reading it in print form, which I’ve always preferred for that publication. All told, I’ve made a concerted effort to really get to know the Kindle.

Here’s what I found: it’s a good reading device, which is to be expected, but what I expected was a fantastic reading device. That just seems like what the Kindle platform should be: the world’s premier electronic reading experience, bar none.

Unfortunately it’s not that, by any means. The 7-inch form factor is marginally easier to hold than an iPad while standing in a subway car, but the size and contours leave me continually feeling like I can’t get a good grip on it. For on-the-go reading, which I do a lot, the justly lambasted positioning of the power button — on the bottom edge of the device — makes it very hard to quickly power back up after alighting trains.

The Kindle software itself is a lousy reading experience; the justified, un-hyphenated typography is an eyesore, the font selection is depressingly homely, and the line-spacing is visually erratic. The net effect is that it feels like I’m consuming a pirated version of whatever book I’m reading, a sensation which might have been fine on earlier versions of Kindle hardware, but seems lazy on a device capable of producing beautiful results. I’m not saying that iBooks is perfect, but Amazon’s focus and head start on the reading experience should have put them in a much better position than this.

Imagination Deficit

Reading aside, there’s little else that the Fire does that excites me, though I admit I’m probably not the target user, since I already own an iPad and am invested in that platform. Even if I weren’t though, I find the Fire’s focus on consumption — an even more extreme focus on that than the iPad — to be disappointing. There are so many things you can do with a portable, touch-based computing device, and the Fire hardly seems interested in any of them.

Amazon has gotten a lot of praise for not flagrantly emulating the iPad with the Kindle Fire, and I concur with that a little bit. However, it should get no praise for its utter lack of imagination. After several weeks of using it, there’s almost nothing about the Kindle that inspires me in any way, whether as a user, as a consumer or as a developer.

In fact, the Fire reminds me a lot of the so-called ‘electronic typewriters’ that came into the market in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At a time when personal computers were getting cheaper and more capable, and word processing software looked poised to take over the typing market, typewriter manufacturers responded by producing a bizarre class of hardware that incorporated a minimal amount of silicon into a traditional typewriter form factor. These machines had a one- or two-line digital display, a marginal amount of memory, and complex modes of editing, formatting and storage. They were weird, but at the time they must have seemed like a reasonable counter-balance to the PC tidal wave: for folks not yet ready for the full power of a personal computer, these awkward beasts could be had for a noticeably reduced price — you just had to be convinced that you could make do with the reduced feature set and the utter lack of imagination. They didn’t last long, of course, and eventually everyone bought a ‘real’ computer. To me, that’s the Kindle Fire.

  1. I keep hearing and reading this same opinion from Apple users: “This device doesn’t inspire me.” But I never hear or read anything the explains how the iPad or iPhone did inspire them. If you’re going to compare 2 things and say something as squishy as “it doesn’t inspire me”, I’d prefer it if you then explained how the other thing inspired you. When I buy a device, it is for a purpose. If the device serves that purpose, I am happy. If that device serves the purpose well and in a clever manner, I may become loyal to that device. Perhaps I simply lack imagination, but I do not look to hardware for inspiration. Software is a different matter. I can be – and frequently am – inspired by software’s design. But my experience with my iPad has been one disappointment after another. From the initial requirement of using the abominable iTunes (which kept me from using my iPad out of the box for a full day) to creepy way the iPad OS tries to protect me from accessing and messing with everything from photos to music to videos. It’s been a very poor experience. If I buy another tablet device, I may look at the Fire as an option, but again, I won’t be looking for inspiration. I simply want it to do what I expect in a way that I can learn and understand.

  2. Thanks for your measured, yet frank review!

    SO GLAD I waited before rushing off to get the latest Kindle at Best Buy (since I also already own an iPad and like the Kindle app on it).

    I wanted a second reading device that could be more generously shared with the kids, left in a reading room or what have you. An article I read somewhere has it that the Amazon dept. manager responsible for its development now no longer recommends the Fire (especially where other Kindles are more dependable). Amazon promises a return to the drawing board.

  3. David: I didn’t say that I found only the hardware uninspiring. Rather, I found the Fire in total uninspiring.

    The iPad, on the other hand, was a revelation. To me, it demonstrated that computing could be very different. In fact, it led me to create Mixel, an app that I believe just wouldn’t have been possible without the iPad.

  4. Just to make a quick reply to this statement alone “The iPad, on the other hand, was a revelation” not to piss off any apple fan boys but sorry No the iPad was not a revelation (at least to me). Tablet computing has been around years before the iPad was even thought of. However these tablets did not have the high res screens and proprietary OS’s. I remember running Windows ME (yeah i know it’s sad) on a tablet computer from Gateway. It did not require a stylist, it had great battery life. It did have a multi-touch screen, I could listen to music, watch videos (play DVDs!!), look at pictures, browse the web. Everything you can do on your iPad’s but I wasn’t restricted to getting all of my software from one place controlled by one company and have to pay for nearly everything I wanted to put on my machine. I could go out into the Web download anything I wanted, just like the home computing fathers intended. And I could poke all of the graphics on the screen. Just like iPad users.

  5. LOL @ Josh

    Sorry. But are you suggesting that the Windows ME OS that was on your Gateway tablet computer wasn’t “proprietary”? Maybe that wasn’t the word you were looking for. It also wasn’t very good for touch, given that Windows was designed for high-resolution input (the mouse).

    The use of euphemisms like “revelation” may grate, but it was certainly a sea-change in terms of broad demonstration of what a tablet computer could be like. Rather than the awkwardly shoehorned desktop metaphors and applications, the iPad delivered a bespoke, touch-specific experience and set in motion all the innovation we’re seeing now. If I may be so bold as to rephrase Khoi, you could say that his argument is that the Fire doesn’t introduce anything significant or new to the tablet computing experience.

    Unlike the many critics of the Kindle Fire, however, I’m patiently waiting for the Fire 2. That’s when I think Amazon will really begin to deliver compelling, differentiated and innovative computing experiences. Sit back. The ride is just starting :-)

  6. like David, i don’t understand what is that inspired you on the ipad, that is missing from the fire.

    what makes fire (specifically, the fire hardware and OS) unsuitable for something like mixel? it’s a bit smaller? but mixel’s tools are already a bit crude and don’t require/produce that much resolution..

    (i am not trying to convince you to build mixel for kindle, only saying that i don’t see why it couldn’t be done)

    or maybe you are talking about the software available for the fire? but how is that different from the ipad when it launched? how many “content creation” apps were there at launch?

    (except for pages/numbers apps, which are not really that great, and not really used by anyone, if we are at all honest)

  7. Tom: Kindle Fire is a touch device but it’s not a multitouch device, so it would be very hard to make Mixel work on it. But even if Kindle Fire had everything that the iPad had at launch (which I believe it does not), I’d still say it’s not inspiring in any way, because it doesn’t offer anything new. That’s what I meant by inspiration — a device like this, which aims to be different from iPad, should be different in ways that are new or unusual or surprising, should enable things that iPad does not. That’s the kind of thing that would inspire me.

  8. thanks for answers. i don’t mean to continue this discussion, but but just to note two things:

    first, the fire is multitouch. i believe two touch-points, but that’s enough to cover 99.9% of the interactions (and definitively the mixel use-case).

    and second, statements like “even if fire had everything the ipad has, it would still not inspire me” (while still being inspired to write a blog post telling everybody how uninspired you are) is just the kind of thinking that would get you labeled as “a fanboy” (hope that as an internet veteran, you are not easily offended ;).

    not every product is a “unique snowflake”, no matter how much apple wants to differentiate and avoid direct comparison (in literally every product category they make).

    what inspires me (in this case) is that roughly 3x as much people will be able to afford a (roughly) equivalent device. direct competition is good for the consumer, and as a whole, good for the industry, even when the only difference between products is a (3x) lower price..