Kindle Fire or Apple Ipad? I’ve read plenty of buzz about how Amazon’s new technology compares to Apple’s, but discussing the relative prices and values of here-today-gone-tomorrow electronic devices misses the point. At stake are important personal freedoms and the “Promise of the Internet.” When we buy a computer or a mobile device or choose a vendor, we endorse certain business practices. When millions of people buy in, the effects ripple through society.
I understand the allure of technology. I was still in college when I bought my first Mac Plus for $1799 (about the same price as a new Mac today. It had 1 MB of RAM, two floppy disc drives and no hard drive, but was the most powerful personal computer available at the time). I found a job with a software company, started a design studio, got my MFA in graphic design and have followed the Macintosh path for twenty-five years. In 1995, I encountered the Internet. My world changed again. I became a web designer and web design educator. Eventually, I became a writer and book designer, using the Internet to distribute my work.
The promise of the Internet
Nothing in human history has delivered on the promise of free speech like the Internet. Any homeless person can walk into a public library, establish a free web hosting account and share his manifesto with the world. The common person’s freedom to post, tweet, email and publish is particularly significant in times when mainstream media decline to report on matters of urgent national business.
The Internet is an open platform and so are the world’s major computer operating systems. You may prefer a Mac or a Windows PC or a Linux Machine but none of these hardware/software combinations has a built-in bias that makes it easier or more difficult to shop with a particular store or access a particular type of content. I can use a Firefox browser to buy a product from Amazon or I can use Google Chrome to order Chinese takeout from down the street. I wrote this article on an Apple Macintosh computer with a Microsoft application and published it with open source software on a LINUX server. None of the vendors I do business with or the tools I use have to be approved by Apple or Microsoft or Google. I can create a Windows or Macintosh application and distribute it directly without anybody’s permission.
Open Platforms vs. Proprietary Standards
Evaluators of Kindle Fire vs. iPad must consider how Apple’s iPhone Operating System (iOS) has changed this open model. Apple is not only the world’s most innovative computer company; it’s the world’s largest digital music retailer. Apple hardware makes it easy to consume and manage a collection of books, movies and music purchased or rented from the Apple iTunes store. For many, the convenience of this closed loop obscures its dangers.
Apple’s innovative technology is unquestionably remarkable, but its iOS is restrictive. Though anyone can make software that runs on a Macintosh or a PC and sell it through any retail mechanism they wish, all apps developed for the iOS must be approved by Apple and sold exclusively through the iTunes App Store. Apple gets a 30% commission on every app. If Apple doesn’t want you to have a “buy” button, you don’t get one. If Apple doesn’t like your app, they can refuse to release it. Apple won’t let you run Adobe Flash content in their mobile browser. If you store music on the Amazon cloud, you can’t run the Cloud Player on your iPhone. Unlike their desktop computers, Apple’s mobile devices make every effort to force you to shop exclusively with them.
The Kindle Fire offers completely open Internet access, but only allows users to install Android apps approved by Amazon. This may be due more to technical limitations of Amazon’s customized version of the open source Android mobile operating system than to any attempt to restrict access to content, but it’s a tradeoff users should be aware of. However, it’s not a restriction that’s likely to result in any form of restraint of trade.
Freedom to Shop is Freedom of Expression
Freedom to shop how and where you want is an important tributary on the river of free speech. We must navigate these waters carefully. With our eyes on our mobile GPS applications instead of the way ahead, we may stay in the middle of the channel and still find ourselves on the rocks. Kindle Fire or iPad? An evaluation of the merits of companies and their technologies must consider the degree to which the promise of a free and open Internet is upheld or impaired.
Fortunately, there are still alternatives to Apple’s proprietary Internet; Western society has never been interested in arranged marriages. The most popular mobile operating system is not Apple’s iOS; it’s Google’s Android operating system, a completely free, open source mobile platform that runs Adobe Flash and does, within the limits of what your mobile device hardware is capable of, pretty much whatever you want it to. (according to Gartner, Apple’s mobile OS was #3 behind Android and Symbian in Q2, 2011).
Though Adobe Flash is dismissed by the uninformed as an unnecessary and annoying animated banner ad technology, it provides mechanisms through which almost any kind of media or functionality can be published inside or outside of a web browser. Flash capability would open up a clear channel for in-browser competition with Apple’s iTunes store on iOS devices. Though Apple blocks Flash content claiming it’s an unstable technology that crashes their devices, I don’t buy it. Flash runs fine on millions of Android tablets and phones, suggesting another reason to think deeply about the Kindle Fire vs. iPad question.
Freedom in The Cloud
As cloud computing becomes more prevalent and mobile devices become more powerful, freedom of choice becomes even more important. Cloud computing is based on the premise that applications run on the server rather than on whatever device you happen to be using. For example, if you use Google Docs to write a letter, you access Google’s word processor through your web browser and store your files on Google’s server. Adobe offers similar services with Acrobat.com. If you purchase music from Amazon, it’s stored on Amazon’s “cloud” of servers (Amazon Cloud Drive) where you can access it securely from any device (other than an iPhone or iPad), anywhere. Apple is offering iCloud for Apple users. For mobile devices based on glorified cellular telephone chips, this means the heavy processing will be done more and more by the server. All the device has to do is log in through an ever-faster Internet connection and display what’s being generated on the other side.
Cloud computing is pushing mobile devices to catch up to the speed and functionality of desktop machines. Desktop machines will have less of a need to run applications and store documents locally. The difference between a mobile phone and a desktop computer may someday amount to little more than the size of the monitor and the size of the keyboard. When that day comes, do you want to be married by your choice of hardware to Apple’s proprietary Internet, or Microsoft’s or Google’s or Amazon’s? Right now, we work and play on machines that allow us to mix and match the software we use and the vendors we choose. An Internet that loses that flexibility is a dangerous step backward for freedom.
Skip The Technology Shootout
Kindle Fire or iPad; why bother with the technical specs? Amazon’s new $199 Kindle Fire delivers a large fraction of the $499 iPad’s functionality at a small fraction of the price. The Android-based Kindle Fire lacks a camera and microphone, but it does offer a Flash-enabled “Silk” browser that runs offa hybrid cloud/local processing model Amazon claims offers better speed. For those considering a purchase now, the particulars of the two devices’ specifications are worth knowing. In the not-so-grand scheme of things, most of this stuff will be pushing up the landfills in the next few years. As gadgets get lower in price, they’ll get replaced and updated more frequently. Ultimately, the competitive environment will dictate what features get added to the next iPad and the next Kindle Fire.
Rather than predict the outcome of next season’s games, let’s look at Apple and Amazon in the light of some tried and true marketing principles. What do they do to earn our loyalty? Are they preserving our freedom to choose?
Competing for Customers
Unlike Apple, Amazon has always been a retailer (you can even buy a new Macintosh on Amazon). Amazon sells books and digital media and everything from gardening supplies to herbal tea. They offer the world’s largest selection of everything, user reviews, used merchandise, links to other vendors, fast fulfillment and low-cost shipping. Amazon competes for customers by offering useful information, better selection, low prices and over two million free out-of-copyright books.
Amazon’s proprietary universe is non-exclusive. Amazon’s Kindle eBooks use a proprietary format (everyone else, including Apple, uses the standard ePub format), but you can read Kindle books on any device (including an iPad) and you can read ePub files (either with an Android app or after conversion) and PDF files on a Kindle. If you purchase digital music on Amazon, you can download your files directly to your iTunes library.
Anyone who has been subjected to the Disneyesque, immersive branding experience of an Apple Store can see Apple is all about cool hardware. Or are they? Apple’s status as the World’s largest music retailer is hardly mentioned. Their devices are promoted as content consumption tools. Buy in; Apple will provide all the content you’ll ever want to consume. The customer lives happily ever after in an isolated, gated community.
It’s certainly possible to buy almost anything you want from Amazon on an iPad—there’s even an Amazon app for iOS—but when it comes to buying, renting and watching videos, reading books and listening to music, the iTunes Store sits in a moated castle in the center of the Apple Universe.
Kindle Fire vs. iPad? The Kindle Fire may not be as full-featured as the iPad, but it offers one powerful advantage—freedom of choice. A straight-on third-party Android tablet is even less restrictive.
Kindle Fire vs. iPad
The technical specifications of competing electronic devices make for engaging conversation as they come and go, but they distract us from recognizing and avoiding important threats to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and free trade. Attempts to entice users into “gated communities” within a free Internet represent a dangerous step backward for society and business.
Apple’s iPad offers a restricted system with a crippled web browser. They hope users will be too enchanted by the content in the iTunes store to notice what they’re missing; it feels like the old “bait-and-switch” routine to me. Amazon offers the best book selection in both paper and eBook formats, an endless assortment of non-book products and a suite of added features that help publishers market their work. Their Kindle Fire offers a cutting-edge browser that runs Flash. The only thing limiting access to content is a restriction on what apps are blessed by Amazon to be installed on the device.
When it comes to choosing an eReader/tablet, buying an iPad requires exchanging way too much freedom for a camera, a microphone and a larger screen. When the next generation of devices comes out, that point will be moot, anyway. If price is the most important selection criterion, the $199 Kindle Fire provides good value with light limitations. If freedom of choice is the gold standard, any number of innovative Android tablets provide support for Adobe Flash, full access to the Internet, freedom to install any Android app you want and complete access to anyone’s eBook library except Apple’s.
After twenty-five years of using Apple products, I’m disappointed I can’t get on the bandwagon to rave about them like I used to. But given the powerful and important promise of a free Internet and the role Apple played in creating it, I’m discouraged that Apple came all this way only to opt out. Kindle Fire vs. iPad? Here’s one Apple user who is betting on Amazon.