Lessons we can learn from the Kindle Fire

Andy Ihnatko, Macworld
19 December, 2011
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First, that The Love Guru isn’t such a terrible movie after all. Oh, it’s bad. Absolutely. But nothing so bad as what I had been expecting after reading the aerobically-bad reviews that were published on the weekend of the film’s release. “Only my dog, who once ate a five-pound bag of flower and then spent the next several days passing a large block of paste through his system, can understand the intensity of pain that I went through during the 87 minute running time of this movie,” wrote the collective soul of public movie critics.

It’s an exceptionally-bad movie, sure. But I was expecting Category-5 (Sex And The City 2) bad. This was merely a Cat 3 (the recent Russell Brand remake of Arthur). I learned this because I impulsively rented this movie as a test of the device’s video playback quality; now I pass this wisdom on to you.

Lesson number two: The critics aren’t always right. Or at least it’s important to keep in mind that they can only write about the experience that they themselves had with the thing in question. The difference between a Roger Ebert and some dabbler with a Tumblr blog is that Ebert brings almost 50 years’ worth of experience when he sits down to write, and though he’s always upfront about his own reactions to the movie, he also tries to see the movie through the eyes of someone with different needs and expectations.

A lot of reviewers have dissed the Kindle Fire. It has some basic physical design flaws, such as a power/sleep button located at a spot where it’s easy to press by accident. The software needs tweaking as well. The UI needs to do a better job of communicating back to the user. You might think that you need to tap a button several times to get it to register; in fact, the button heard you the first time but it didn’t highlight so you’re left wondering.

But overall, I think it’s a spiffy device and exactly what the market needs. Instead of building a clone of the iPad and selling it for marginally less money (a strategy that every other tablet maker has been successfully failing with for the past year). Amazon chose to focus on the core features that resonate with the greatest number of consumers, and to deliver them in a device that the greatest number of people can afford. “The Fire isn’t nearly as fluid and responsive as the iPad” is a perfectly valid complaint; “But it’s more than just ‘good enough’ for what it’s meant to do, and it’s just 40 percent the cost of the iPad” is also a perfectly valid response.

Many of the (shall I delicately say) most enthusiastic takedowns of the Fire have come from Apple-centred blogs and news sites. That worries me a little. The Fire might illustrate another lesson: That as a species, the community of Apple users might be a bunch of pampered, coddled, butterfly-collecting wimps who don’t appreciate that sometimes – sometimes – a user with lower expectations is not a user with lower standards. Sometimes, ‘practical, functional and cheap’ trumps ‘perfect at any price.’

Seriously. I can’t speak to the reviewer who reported that his Fire kept crashing incessantly (I had a pre-release device and it didn’t lock up once during four days of intense usage). But are we really going to complain that the page turns look boring and mechanical instead of delivering the full OpenGL shaded-and-translucent flourish of the opening credits of a classic Disney storybook movie? Are we to dismiss a product because of an occasional 1.5-second pause between tapping on an application icon and something happening? Or, rather, simply because this pause happens more often on the Fire than it happens on the iPad?

It’s important to note these bits where (metaphorically) the body panels don’t line up perfectly and the buttons for the heater should be more prominent on the dashboard. But it’s also important to acknowledge that when you buy an Apple product, the polish, elegance and killer design comes at a thirty to forty percent markup. Not everybody has that kind of budget.

Nor that kind of interest. Just as importantly, for many users, and with a device like the iPad, that money is completely wasted. I have a couple of friends who own and appreciate fine watches. The level of engineering that goes into a true timepiece can be breathtaking, as can the price. I spent US$150 for my current watch and even so, it seemed like an eye-popping amount; until then, I’d only owned US$50 Casios and Timexes. But I certainly don’t think that these people are silly for spending many hundreds – even thousands – of dollars more for an elegantly-designed, meticulously-handmade timepiece compared to my Swiss Railway Watch.

The difference is that my friends look at their watches and see the engineering and the design. I look at my watch and I see the time. This defines the difference between the ideal iPad user and the ideal Fire user.

The advantages of an iPad over a Fire, or a MacBook Air over a netbook, are far from merely aesthetic and intellectual. Let’s appreciate and celebrate those differences but please, can we try hard not to become snobs, either?

The Fire also teaches us that Steve Jobs was wrong about two more things. He was wrong when he insisted that 7in tablets are fundamentally useless. The size of the screen inflicts limitations on how the device can be used and that’s true of both the iPad and the Fire. A 7in screen limits the Fire’s usability bandwidth to content consumption and a restricted subset of ‘real’ computer tasks. The iPad’s 10in screen limits it to just those times and places when you can carry a bag around and where you’d feel comfortable using a large device. The iPad is no more suitable for reading a book on a subway than the Fire is for writing a whole bunch of long emails. Two different tablets, two different users, two very satisfied customers.

Jobs was also wrong about his famous maxim that “The side of a cabinet that faces the wall and which nobody ever sees has to be just as beautiful as the front.” No, it doesn’t. It has to be strong and tight enough to protect clothes from tiny interlopers and to add a bit of support to the frame, and it has to be made out of something durable so that if the owner is stupid and places the dresser in front of a heat exchanger, the back won’t warp or come apart.

Anything above that is just a bonus. If you’re trying to sell me a dresser that you’ve built and are pointing out that the back is made from two pieces of perfectly joined, bookmatched and French-polished mahogany, I’ll admire the craftsmanship in an academic sense. But I’d resent the idea that I’d want to spend an extra $300 on a feature that will only ever be seen and appreciated by the designer and by the spiders who occasionally commute across my baseboards and walls. My perspective as a consumer is much more simple than my perspective as a tech pundit: If the a feature doesn’t materially makes the thing more useful to me, then it’s only a missed opportunity to knock down the price a little.

Oh, and: seriously, Sex And The City 2 is possibly the worst movie ever made. I saw it on cable. By the end, I hated not only the movie, not only the basic concept of moviemaking, but the very idea of light being projected from a source to my eyeballs.


4 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. R Fung says:

    I have both the iPad and the Kindle Fire. I bought the latter on a lark, mostly, because I knew I could return it if I didn’t like it. But I find myself using it more and more, and I carry this with me instead of the iPad.

    The Kindle Fire doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that the iPad, but then my iPhone does most of those tasks like taking photographs and making recordings.

    What the Kindle Fire does really well is allow you to pour through content–music, videos, etc.–with ease. Sure, the Carousel is a pain to deal with because you can’t edit it presently, but Amazon will fix it.

    I bought some expanded space on Amazon’s Cloud, so now I can load all of my music. Which is great.

    What Amazon has achieved is a great tablet that does just enough for most people. And that’s a great achievement.

    Also, as much as I admire the brushed aluminum on the iPad, I find it cold and unpleasant to hold in your hands. Even though it’s not as cool, the rubber backing on the Kindle Fire is nice to hold.

  2. Heintjie says:

    Consumer like you are responsible for making companies create rubbish products at the expense of other consumer who are conned to believe their purchases will lead to a delight and joyful experience. Stop your nonsense and irresponsible journalism trying to make arguments about how a dead legend being wrong about something that even you yourself “admit it or not” is someone who cared about so much details which is left unappreciated by someone like you.

    Mediocre products fits mediocre people and mediocre blogger

  3. Michael O'Keefe says:

    That wasn’t so bad Heintjie, Andy can write a review that’s entertaining, if somewhat lacking in technical aspects, it’s not that bad.
    I’ve had the original Kindle, it’s ok, purchased one for my wife at the same time ( you couldn’t buy them here in Australia, had to wait for the mail from the States) so I see the Fire as an updated version of the original. Good, it needed it, will I buy one ? Probably not. We have too many Mac products now, Kindle is a good platform. Enjoy your Christmas,

  4. Pedro says:

    Heintjie, I read the man as saying “It’s horses for courses”, i.e. a thoroughbred racehorse for the track v/s a draft horse for a farm, it’s not about “rubbish products” v/s “a delight and joyful experience”. Putting it another way, designers should (but often don’t) remember the bauhaus principle, i.e. form follows function, with “form” in an IT device including the functionality of the UI. A device that does what you want it to and does it reliably is all that you really need. Apple usually (but not always!) manages to get both functionality and cosmetics right, but it does tend to be at a cost, and not all of us are willing or able to pay extra for the cosmetics.

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