Amazon Kindle Fire: Setting It Free

Photo Courtesy: Rob Willcox

What’s Amazon’s little secret? Ask aNewDomain’s Paul Bonner.

aNewDomain.netAmazon announced the other day that it had sold a million Kindles a week in December.

That total includes the Kindle Reader that my brother gave my mom — a wise choice, I think, for a 93-year-old — but it’s safe to assume that most of the other Kindles sold were Kindle Fires. Four million Kindles sold forever guarantees the Kindle Fire’s place as the ubiquitous four-door sedan of Android tablets. And there’s nothing that Acer or Asus or Archos — or even Google — can do about that.

I’m sure, too, that almost every person who unwrapped a new Kindle Fire on Christmas morning was thrilled, just as my wife was when I gave her one a month ago. But there’s a little secret — and you’ll figure it out soon if you haven’t already — and it matches what my wife Betsy said. There is a lot the Amazon Kindle Fire just cannot do.

Photo courtesy: Rob Willcox

For starters, there are the technology limitations. No GPS, no 3G, no camera, no microphone and no memory expansion capability. (ED: Also, where are the parental controls to keep kids from buying — or to keep the tipsy from going on drunk buying sprees? Ideas? See below for commentary from our own Brian Burgess.)

I doubt the hardware limitations will concern a lot of people. Amazon is clearly providing a great value for $199. I expect that the next generation of Kindle tablets will provide even more hardware goodness at loss-leader pricing.

But let’s be blunt. Hardware is just plumbing. Software is what matters — and the Kindle Fire’s software is the reason why most new owners will grow increasingly dissatisfied with this year’s gift. Because, what do you really have when someone gives you a Kindle? A superb platform for buying stuff from Amazon? Definitely. Something that even begins to approximate the full Android tablet experience? Not a chance.

Every Kindle Fire owner has been cheated by Amazon’s unconscionable software decisions.

I know it’s possible via a convoluted process to sideload apps on a Kindle Fire. But you’ll never get Gmail or Google Maps to run that way. And plenty of third-party apps will fail, too.

It’s also possible, if you’re handy and don’t mind voiding your warranty, to root the Kindle Fire and install one of the customized Cyanogen builds floating around on phone hacker sites — like This way you’ll obtain access to the full Android experience.

Realistically though, the percentage of Kindle Fire owners ready to go that route is miniscule. Most will just go on feeling mopey whenever they see what an iPad or a real Android tablet can do.

The Kindle Fire’s success is a fine demonstration of the power of loss-leader pricing and of Amazon’s general marketing prowess. But it’s time for Amazon to migrate the existing Kindle Fire, and the next generation, to a full Android 4.0.2 Ice Cream Sandwich mobile OS that gives its customers what they deserve: a real Android tablet with Android Market access and Google apps.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and company needn’t worry: Grateful customers will still buy plenty of Amazon books, movies and apps.

The only difference is that they’ll finally be doing so from a device that actually delivers what they thought they were buying in the first place.

For, I’m Paul Bonner.


  • Hey, Brian, I was the one who added that. Guess my Fire doesn’t have the update yet! i will try that out. Great links!

    And great story, Paul Bonner. Sorry my former exec ed from BYTE welcomes you with pointing out the one change i made to your piece! LOL They say every writer needs an editor. Every editor needs a Brian Burgess!

    Happy New Year!

  • Great points, Paul. Thanks for an interesting read.

    But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree. I’m deeply invested in the Google apps universe, but I’m also a value shopper. And for me, I’ve never seen $600+ of value in the iPad experience. Even with terrific Google apps support.

    So I purchased a Fire with the expectation that I’d use it mostly as a platform to access Amazon content. Actually, now that I’ve had “hands on”, I’ve been thrilled at the wide range of quality app support outside the Amazon world, including Twitter, Evernote, Stitcher, HuffingtonPost, Cnet, Tunein, Pandora, and a whole lot more. And toss in the really quite usable Google apps web interface, and I’m not missing much.

    So, I’ve got a really useful tablet and I’m down $200. Compared to iPad and Android pricing, I’m feeling fairly good about the outcome.

    Which brings me to this closing. I think we need to thank Amazon for bringing some price competition to the field. Apple will be just fine, but should feel a little heat from this fire.

  • Sorry, but this article is disingenuous.

    Amazon made it clear at the launch that this is purely a media consumption device. It’s not meant to be a productivity tool to replace iPad, Moto Xoom, Asus Transformer, etc. There is no “dirty little secret”. It would more accurately be a “forgotten fact”.

  • Well, I’ve been testing the Fire for a month. I dislike it more with every passing day — it is a shopping machine pure and simple. I certainly wouldn’t saddle anyone with it.

    Yes, it’s a great value for $199. But it’s neither as good a reader as the Nook or as good a tablet as the iPad. Would I PAY MONEY for it of my own? Answer: no.

    But Mike, I do agree with you re Amazon bringing price competition in. That’s exactly what we need is competition in this space. I just don’t need a shopping machine in my briefcase — I spend enough already! And I also carry an iPhone, a laptop, speakers for the dock … crazy.

    I am with Paul. That’s the beauty of a commentary piece. Would be fun to do a pro con thing. Here in Boston, my niece and nephew have been playing with the Fire non stop. But would they buy it? They say they’d use it, they wouldn’t buy it. Their parents said no, too …

    There is a new Amazon tablet coming in the March timeframe that will be higher end. That’s the one I can’t wait to see, Mike.

    p.s. anewdomain’s eric mack and I actually broke the story that amazon was coming out with a tablet over at byte. perhaps we expected too much. next to my samsung galaxy tablet, the current fire is kinda wimpy.

    • Well – March came and went – any news on that new Amazon tablet?

      My family loves our Amazon tablet – games are cheep (especially if you include the savings from not buying an iPad), and the videos from Amazon Prime are excellent (how’s this for starters: every episode of every series of Star Trek, every episode of the Chapelle Show, every episode of Buffy…). For 80 bucks a year – which also gives you tax-free + free-shipping.

      Together, as an entertainment device for the mass market, this combo is the bargain of the century.


  • Bah! Let me get my Android cred set up front: My Evo 4G is running CyanogenMod, my nontech wife sports a Nexus S. I firmly believe that carriers and manufacturers should present their best view of what a smartphone or tablet should look like and then allow the user to choose alternate versions of their reality.

    That said, I own a Kindle Fire and feel that most Fire buyers will be happy with the version of tablet that Amazon has presented to them. A vast majority of Fire owners will find the tablet easy to use and the ability to quickly purchase and consume books, music and video a godsend.

    They don’t and won’t need gmail and maps as apps on a tablet. If they use maps, that makes much more sense on a phone or desktop. If they use gmail, the mail client is more than good enough for handling gmail on a tablet. They – unlike Paul and me – will not miss the Google applications. It may be a dirty little secret, but he emphasis HAS to be on LITTLE.

    Sooner or later, I’ll root and add the Google apps to my Fire. When CyanogenMod9 (Ice Cream Sandwich)is released and solid, I’ll flash that on my Fire. In the mean time, there are many friends and family members that I would recommend this Amazon consumption device to – with no hesitance.

  • Interesting article, but a secret? That’s like saying the iphone’s dirty little secret is its screen size. I have iPads. I have the Transformer. I have the Fire. I really, really like the Fire. It does what I’d expect a $200 device to do, and nothing more, and nothing less.

    I get to GMail just fine. I read lots and lots of books. I have full access to Amazon’s Android store. I have Evernote. I have my Todo app that sync’s wonderfully with Toodledo. I have pretty decent battery life. This is my go-to bedside and commuting device. I’ll grab one of the 10″ tablets once I get to work…

  • I bought a Kindle Fire. I like it. I have a Kindle 1 and 3 (keyboard). I did not expect the Fire it to have a camera, GPS or even 3G. Do not listen to those who bitch that it does not have this or that. If you want the camera, GPS or 3G, research and buy a Galaxy Tab. You can buy an 8GB iPod Touch with a crummy camera and a Kindle app, or you can buy the Fire and enjoy a 7″ music player, video player, book reader, color web browser, and app device.

  • Maury is right re the Galaxy Tab. I greatly prefer it over the Kindle. It’s all personal preference. As Paul said, $199 is a good price — a great price — and Amazon opens up competition by entering with a loss leader.

    Re the hed — don’t blame Paul. I wrote it. Too strong? Perhaps. Due to popular demand — I am changing the hed back to the writer’s original — or close to it.

    Wait till you see the Amazon tablet coming in the spring ; ) Happy New Year everyone! Thanks for hanging with us. It’s going to be a great year.

  • The iPhone’s dirty little secret used to be — when it was just AT&T — that you never had to say goodbye. Dropped calls. LOL. I see I need to hire a hed writer, Shawn!

    p.s. Shawn, you’d buy TWO tablets? And a phone? And a laptop? Do you have a sherpa, too? LOL! gs jk

    p.p.s. If a reader would like to write a rooting article for aNewDomain, email me! gs

  • Wow, what a fun way to enter 2012, getting all this response to my little rant…

    I agree with Mike Rothman that Amazon has done a great job of changing conventional wisdom re the acceptable price point for a tablet. Look at the Toshiba Thrive 7. Four or five months ago it would have been welcomed as a great deal at $399. Instead, reviewers are saying, “Nice but overpriced.” That’s a positive step, and Amazon deserves credit for making it happen.

  • I don’t agree with Rob Verlander’s suggestion that only tech elitists will miss a native Gmail app or any other feature/capability that the Kindle Fire is missing. The tablet-version of the Gmail app is clearly superior to the web interface on any platform, and the ability to scan incoming messages in the tablet widget makes it even better. But the bigger point is that there’s no good reason for the Kindle Fire not to make those capabilities available to its buyers. Amazon could certainly have worked out a favorable licensing deal for the Google apps, but it chose not to do so, and delivered a crippled product instead.

  • Ancient history here, but this discussion reminds me a bit of the reaction to my review of the PCjr 30 odd years ago. Another crippled product from a manufacturer who should have known better.

  • Gina points out that Amazon is preparing a more powerful tablet for release in March. From what I’ve read, it’ll be bigger and faster and have more memory. And if Amazon delivers that under $300, it’ll have the same beneficial effect of lowering the acceptable price point for these toys.

    Those are all good things–although personally I much prefer the 7″ or 8″ tablets to the 10″ form factor that the new one is supposed to have. And it will be especially good if the new Kindle is running on top of full Android 4.x OS with access to the Android Market and Google apps. But I haven’t read anything suggesting that that’s the case, which makes me fear that it may be running the same crippled, Android 2.2-based OS as the Kindle Fire, in which case it won’t even be worth talking about in discussions of quality Android tablets.

  • I have to think this article is off-target. Amazon didn’t market the Fire as a full blown tablet. This device isn’t for the uber-geeks like us. The Fire is for my mother, sister and other people that are using it as a consumption device. I can’t tell you how much it annoyed me that just about every Kindle Fire review ended with “…it isn’t as good as an iPad.” No kidding, it isn’t supposed to be.

    I gave a Kindle Fire to my mother for Christmas and it is her first real existence on the Internet (if you can believe that). She can do her email through it just fine, shop, read a few books, and watch some movies. She doesn’t care that it can’t access the Android market. My father is on Android with both a tablet and a phone and he loves it. To ensure parity between apps, he installed the Amazon Android App store under a shared account (that the Kindle Fire is registered under) and buys apps through there instead of the Google Market. This allows my parents to both save on apps.

    It is my opinion that you need to shift the paradigm about what the Kindle Fire’s goal is. It IS a front-end for the Amazon digital ecosystem and it is a 1.0. Is the iPad better, OMG yes! Assuming my mother really gets into the Fire to the point she NEEDS more, then we can upgrade her. Because of Amazon’s willingness to run apps on multiple platforms, we can choose what to get her.

    I will agree though, that to ensure developers stay aboard, they need to move the core OS to Ice Cream Sandwich. But as only one device in the entire tablet or phone market is running that, I think they have time.

    • Ken, I would have agreed with you a few weeks ago. My wife sounds nearly as non-uber-geek as your mother, so I gave her a Kindle Fire, not sure if she’d even use. Lo and behold, she liked it, and started spending lots of time exploring it’s capabilities, something she’d really never done her Mac. But then she shocked me last week by starting to point out all the things it couldn’t do… I’d known about most of them, but didn’t think she’d ever get far enough with it to notice.

      And therein lies the problem with the “only a sophisticate like myself would notice the difference” attitude a lot of reviewers and analysts take whenever this topic comes up. If a device is any good (like the Kindle Fire), lots of users are going to become sophisticates very quickly, and if the device turns out to be crippled (again, like the Kindle Fire), they’ll notice and it will make them sad.

      • Paul, I think you are mistaking my argument. I agree with you that I would LOVE to have this as a full blown Android tablet. If the rumored Kindle ICE is that, I will buy one in a second.

        I look at the Fire as being designed to be a low-cost market differentiation device versus lacking capabilities. The Kindle Fire is the gateway drug that allows people into the ecosystem.

        Let’s use another few piece of technology to in comparison. The DVD player and Blu-ray player. The DVD player provides relatively good quality video on a large screen television. Then you have Blu-ray players providing superior playback quality, and depending on the model, extra features. Extra features include Netflix, Pandora, etc. DVD players and their media are usually less costly than Blu-ray. A market exists for both DVD and Blu-ray. This is because of the cost between them. The argument I hear most is that DVD is “good enough” at the cost.

        Now, bring this back to the tablet market. You have several great tablets in the iPad, Galaxy Tab, Asus, and other manufacturers. Each of these tablets is well made and each one offers superior functionality to the Kindle Fire. Now, if we break this up by software, we have Apple iOS on the iPad, and (for now) Honeycomb 3.xx on the Android tablets with very little differentiation between them. That vast market just became the Apple iOS tablet, the Android Honeycomb tablet, and the Amazon Kindle Fire (and to a lesser extent, the Nook).

        Most consumers will pay in the $400-600 range for a new iOS or Android tablet. The Kindle Fire however is at the $200 price point. Given the Fire’s capabilities, at a much lower cost, the Kindle Fire is “good enough.”

        Your wife is the perfect example of how does this change over time?

        If a DVD user sees a friend’s Blu-ray setup and has an “I really want that experience from now on!” moment, then he/she will proceed to move to Blu-ray because they feel the costs are appropriate. They then take their legacy DVDs and still watch them on the Blu-ray player.

        If a Kindle Fire user sees a friend’s Android or iOS tablet and has an AHA moment revealing that they want more, then they move up in the market to a new device. Moving to an Android tablet would allow them to install the Amazon App store, Kindle, and Amazon MP3 apps and use their legacy content. Moving to the iPad would at least allow for the user to take their books and MP3’s with them.

        In other words, the Kindle is for a different market segment than iOS or Honeycomb tablets. I don’t feel that Amazon falsely markets the device by stating it can do every task an iOS or Honeycomb tablet can perform. Therefore it is doing everything it is advertised to do.

        One other note, Amazon has quickly responded to customer feedback with software patches OTA, something that other Android device makers are very rare to do. If that continues that will continue to add to customer loyalty. Hopefully that feedback is also used on the future Kindle tablet roadmap.


        • I appreciate your concerns, but I can’t agree. My wife (who’s getting an awful lot of press this weekend), has many talents, but they’ve never included taxing the limits of any technology. And yet, she hit the wall with the Kindle Fire, finding things she wanted to do and couldn’t, in three weeks. To me, that’s rather too short a lifespan for product contentment, and way too soon to start thinking about moving up to a higher-priced alternative.

          If eliminating that discontentment took significantly more expensive hardware, then the compromises built into the Kindle Fire would make sense. But the hardware is already more than sufficient for a full-fledged tablet, and licensing Google’s software would have cost almost nothing (certainly far less per unit than the Microsoft patent tax almost every Android vendor pays.) The only real cost to Amazon would have been its monopoly on the Kindle Fire owner’s attention.

          One other thing–I think your statement that _Most consumers will pay in the $400-600 range for a new iOS or Android tablet_ is wrong. At least in terms of Android tablets. Google’s October activation report suggested that total Honeycomb sales to that point were about 3.4 million. Which suggests that at point, after the holiday season Amazon just had, around half of the Android tablet using community is using a $199 Kindle. As I said in my lead, the Kindle Fire is the 4-door sedan of the Android tablet market.

          • Oops — I got a bit carried away there on my estimate of the Kindle Fire’s market impact. Sales totals depend on what you’re counting, and I was looking at Honeycomb numbers. IDC estimated 3rd quarter Android tablet shipments at around 5.8 million (but their total includes Android-based e-readers), while strategy analytics came up a 4.5 million unit estimate. So my “around half” statement may have considerably over-stated the case.

            Still, I think it safe to say that, with the exception of hacker favorites like the Viewsonic Gtab and the Nook Color, few if any non-Honeycomb Android models would meet either of our definitions of a full-featured Androidtablet. So I may not have been be quite as far off as the IDC numbers suggest.

  • A question re media consumption device. (To me, it’s a highly dangerous shopping device : ) Does anyone else notice how tinny these speakers are?
    LOL re the PC Jr. from IBM. It should’ve known better. And remember New Coke?

    It’ll be interesting when HP re-enters with the Touchpad later this year.

    • It is a very highly dangerous shopping device! The first thing my mother did with hers was learn to shop. LOL. As for the speakers, everyone seems to think they sound pretty good for a small device. Then again, those people also are coming from a cell phone speaker for a similar comparison. What really irks me is the lack of a volume rocker for those speakers.

      As for HP, I don’t think they stand a chance. I loved WebOS and had a Palm Pre on day one. The software is amazing, but the gigantic missteps HP has made over the past year leads me to feel they tanked WebOS. Actually, once WebOS is open sourced, I could see a company like HTC or Samsung possibly making a more successful mobile device play with it after Google’s Motorola Mobility acquisition.

      I think the biggest unknown in the tablet market is going to be Windows 8. That carries the possibility of creating major shifts in the market, especially in the enterprise.

  • Wow – any tablet–crappy specs or not–that generates this much discussion has clearly found a market.

    • The funny thing is that, in a lot of ways, I love the Kindle Fire. It feels great–solid and bullet-proof, in your hands, and what it does, it does surprisingly well for a $199 tablet. The hardware limitations aren’t awful, although I’d have trouble buying a tablet for myself that didn’t have some kind of memoru expansion slot and BlueTooth. The software limitations bug me more because they’re artificial and serve no purpose other than to limit what a customer can do with his/her purchase.

  • the fire is not only for reading amazon books, but also surfing the web, and accessing interesting content via the pulse app as.I’doing right now. it is not that bad, c’mon!

  • I actually want a Kindle now. Why? Because a friend of mine on G+ got one and put CM7 on it. The hardware can handle that ROM without a problem and function as a pretty descent tablet, even tho it’s not running OS >2.3. It’s processor and RAM has it running quite snappy and allowing ANDROID functionality for his multimedia purposes. $200 and rooted? SURE! I want one. :)

    -RAP, II

    • I’d do the same if I had one.CM7 is as good as it gets in a non-tablet oriented Android. You’ll miss out on the tablet specific, gets you access to the Android Market and Google apps, etc. And it looks like the ROM cooks at xda-developers are getting close to solid CM9 Ice Cream Sandwich build, which will get you access to what should be a flood of new tablet-specific apps.

      It’s just too bad though that most Kindle Fire owners won’t ever realize they have that option, and sadder still that Amazon chose not to save you all the trouble of doing it by giving the thing a full Android OS from the start.

  • I bought my wife a Kindle Fire for her birthday in early January. At the end of January I bought one for myself. I now use the Kindle for things I used my phone/data connection for. Granted, limited to Wi-Fi, but I can do mail, Twitter, Google things via Google online, maps, mail etc. Most apps are just web portals anyway. Beats the data caps.

  • It is what it is and thats what they wanted it to be. Not everyone needs everything ipad offers

  • Also the new boss at apple seems to think they have somthing going for em not to mention its the best selling android tablet. It has not been out a year and its in most tablet conversations. No its no ipad but like i said i don’t think it was designed to be

  • I actually find it surprising that a company managed to put in place a tighter leash on its device’s end users than Apple managed. Also, I frankly believe a first experience on such a tightly controlled Android device will have many Fire users migrate to iOS or windows devices.

  • Considering Amazon takes a loss on each Kindle sold, expecting subsequently to rake it in on content sales, an Ice Cream Kindle will probably move into the same price region as other machines of that ilk. Which may be why Amazon prefers not to do it. Why bother?