Monday, April 30, 2012

Amazon Kindle Fire, Some Thoughts After Extended Use


I received my Kindle Fire right after it came out. I've used it extensively since then and for the most part I've really enjoyed the experience. I'm going to talk briefly about the thingI don't like today, explain why I don't like it and make some suggestions for possible fixes.

When the Fire came out everyone wanted to compare it to the iPad and while there is some overlap I didn't see them as existing primarily in the same market space. My opinion hasn't changed. Size, feature sets and user experience all differ substantially enough to make it obvious that they have different use cases and thus different customers for the most part. Amazon isn't a dumb company. They never intended to go head to head with Apple with their first generation tablet. They had a specific niche in mind centered around media and application content delivery and they did a good job of executing to that.

There are some warts though. In keeping the manufacturing costs low Amazon delivered a product that doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles. The lack of hardware volume controls for instance. For the most part I can live with the limitations given the price point. The one thing I am finding frustrating though is the lack of storage. It doesn't take much to fill 8gig. A modest assortment of Apps plus a few hundred good quality MP3's and one or two half hour TV shows is enough to have the low storage message popping up constantly for me.

Given the intended niche for this product I can't help but think that Amazon has shot themselves in the foot because of that. I'd buy more stuff if it wasn't such a pain to manage my local storage. Yes, there is the Amazon cloud and while it is very nice the Fire is wireless only and I'm much more likely to be off the network than on when I want to listen to music, use an application or watch video.

There are a couple of different things Amazon could do to address this deficiency in the next generation of their product. The obvious one would be to up the internal storage. The better solution is to add an SD card slot. Apple differentiates their iPad models in part by the amount of internal storage they provide. Apple is primarily in the business of selling hardware with apps and media sales being a steadily growing side line. Amazon on the other hand has a business model where the hardware is just a means of enabling people to buy other stuff from them. This is very similar to the video game consoles where the hardware is sold at cost or for a small loss with the knowledge that sales of games in the future will more than make up for any losses on the initial hardware sale.

So in this case Amazon has no incentive to try to differentiate their hardware based on the amount of local storage. In fact they have an incentive to find a cost effective and simple way for people to up the amount of storage their devices have if this encourages additional sales of content and if my experience is meaningful I think it would. Adding an SD card slot would increase manufacturing costs modestly but would enable consumers to up the amount of local storage significantly. Amazon could also optionally bundle different sized SD cards with their next generation Kindle Fire which would make it easy for people to create a customized experience in this area.

So, the bottom line Amazon needs to find a way to make more local storage available on the Fire if they want to increase their after purchase revenues. All other concerns are secondary in my opinion.

I have some thoughts on a second generation Kindle Fire but I'll leave them for another day.

Amazon-New-Detail-Page (Photo credit: kokogiak)
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Sunday, April 22, 2012

What If Apple Did Make a Television?

The new, second-generation Apple TV. This is n...

The persistent rumors that Apple is preparing to release a television have been cropping up for at least a few years now. Every time I hear them I have a tendency to want to scream for reasons that I've explained on Google+ and in previous posts here. To keep it short, Apple already has the Apple TV set top box and the margins on televisions are low while the competition is fierce so what would Apple gain by building a television?

The thing about opinions is that they should be reexamined constantly, particularly when new facts come to light. In this case there are two things that are making me reconsider.

Number one, this rumor won't die and I can't think of a good reason why it would keep getting resurrected. The regularly recurring 7 inch iPad rumors are easy enough to explain as your basic run of the mill spreading of FUD to suppress sales of competitors products. Not that I'm not accusing Apple of anything, just noting that it has been common practice in the industry for as long as I can remember. It doesn't even have to be Apple that is doing it. There are analysts and other third parties who have both personal and professional motivations to attempt to influence how many tablets are sold by companies like Amazon and ASUS.

The second thing that makes me think there may be something to this is the discovery that there are industry standards for video resolution above 1080p, though this isn't really a necessity if Apple wants to define their own resolution or go pure proprietary but it got me to thinking.

Apple has incorporated very high dot density displays into both their iPhone and iPad over the past couple of years. This has been made possible by both advances in display technology and video processing hardware, particularly in low power environments. These advances mean it is feasible to produce the displays at prices that make them affordable enough for mass market consumer products and that the supporting hardware can provide a good user experience at these much higher bit densities.

If Apple is going to produce a TV they'll do it in what is referred to as a differentiated manner. They won't want to compete on price as that would impact their industry leading margins and signal a change in their approach which is unlikely. Producing TV's with higher resolutions than the now standard 1080P would be one way of doing this. The obvious problem with that approach is there isn't much content right now that fully utilizes even 1080P. Producing a TV that supported QFHD or one or more of the 4K video standards would thus only be the first and in some sense least important step.

Here is where the late Steve Jobs connections to Disney and Pixar come in to play. Lets assume for a moment that one of Jobs last projects was to leverage his contacts and ownership stakes in media companies to get Apple access to higher quality sources for video. Realistically you'd need a really huge display to really utilize these higher resolutions but that is a secondary concern and one that most people won't care about. Bigger is always better and there may be other benefits as well to these higher resolution televisions like enhanced color reproduction and/or brightness.

So assume Apple has deals lined up for higher resolution video, what else could they provide? The 3rd generation iPad's 2048x1536 display has already provided significant motivation for iOS game and application developers to produce versions of their products that support this resolution. You're already ahead of 1080P right there and that is in a ten inch form factor screen. It's easy to believe that a next generation version of Apple's SOC (System On a Chip) could support even higher resolutions.

If you double the 3rd generation iPad's vertical and horizontal resolution you end up with something awfully close to Full Aperture 4K's 4096x3112 resolution. Keep in mind that an Apple television would have the advantage of being plugged into the wall and while power is always a concern these days, Apple would have a much easier time revving up the performance of their SOC if they didn't have to worry so much about their power envelope.

There would be some challenges though. Arguably the biggest one would be the limited amount of bandwidth most US homes have. Supporting QFHD like resolutions in real time would require copious amounts of bits to somehow make it into our homes and that is a problem. Many of us get our Internet from the local cable company which has a vested interested in discouraging things like this. It's increasingly common for bandwidth caps on the order of 250 gigabytes or less to be enforced. That sounds like a lot of data but it really isn't when you're talking about these kinds of resolutions. Apple would likely have to offer the ability to download content before viewing at least in the US. Other first world countries don't tend to have this issue so it might even be conceivable that Apple roles this product out some place other than the US first. Doing so would be a great way to shed light on the steadily developing bandwidth crises in the US.

So in summary, I'm now convinced that Apple might be working on a television. If they are it will be a differentiated product that compliments their overall strategy and product line. They are too smart to do otherwise. Is my vision above close to the mark? I'd like to think it is at least realistic but we'll all have to wait and see.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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