Mr. Bezos or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kindle Fire

There has been a series of “iPad killers” and alternatives since the Apple announced it in January 2010. Windows tablets, the HP TouchPad, Blackberry PlayBook and, of course, a number of Android-powered  tablets from a large pool of manufacturers. Some of these devices were launched with great hopes and hype but failed to catch on with consumers for one reason or another. When faced with an array of products similar in price to the iPad but without the platform Apple has built around iOS the other tablets have been a tough sell to the general public.

Consumers specifically looking for an Android tablet or who snagged a TouchPad in August can be perfectly happy with those devices as touch-based netbooks with a bit more customization than Apple will likely ever offer. But in many cases this is a niche market: the big bucks (not to mention market share) will be won by the company that targets the masses. The Kindle Fire wants to be that marquee non-iPad product.

For those who just cannot stand Apple products, the Kindle Fire is not an iPad killer. For those who want a tablet to replace most of what a laptop or netbook can do, the Kindle Fire will be a disappointment. While the hardware in the Kindle Fire is quite similar to the BlackBerry PlayBook and it runs Android as the underlying OS, the Kindle Fire is not a full-featured tablet and it’s implementation of Android is a heavily skinned Gingerbread, not Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich. It is however very interesting for what it is: a portal into the Amazon marketplace.

The Kindle Fire is first and foremost a Kindle. Amazon has expanded the Kindle brand from e-ink reading devices to include a color LCD content consumption device that can run audio, video, apps, and the web in addition to text.

As an iPad user for more than a year I have begun to rely on the tablet as an indispensable tool. It has become my primary means of using Twitter, a gaming device, a bottomless notebook powered by Evernote, a recipe book, Netflix viewer, and more. Using a bluetooth keyboard it can function adequately for typing, though primarily as an input device. Editing is still easier with a traditional computer, but is not impossible with the touch interface. After reading some early reviews of the Kindle Fire, I was afraid the iPad use had colored my expectations in a way that would make Amazon’s toe-in-the-water entry into the tablet market.

Instead, I find myself enjoying the Kindle Fire immensely. It’s the first Kindle I have owned, given my reservations concerning e-books, and has created a dilemma for me regarding what device to travel with.

The Kindle Fire provides a pleasant enough reading experience. Although it uses an LCD screen instead of e-ink I have not found myself wishing for the latter outside of battery concerns (the Kindle Fire is good for “all day” use, but it needs to be charged every day or two even if just used for a little light reading). I have read Kindle and blog content extensively on my phone and on the iPad, so the LCD is not a change from my normal reading habits when I’m paperless. With its seven-inch display, the Kindle Fire fits easily in my hand and the user experience is similar to holding a heavy paperback book. If it were a little lighter and had a bit more battery life I would probably never wonder if I could be happier with an e-ink reader instead.

Watching video from the Prime Instant Video library is painless, although like Netflix (whose app supports the Kindle Fire) the free streaming selection is limited. Of course, Amazon matches the iTunes store here with their additional selection of movies and TV shows available to rent or purchase. The screen isn’t as large as the one on the iPad, but it’s good enough for a device that can fit in a large pocket and is either used on the go or while sitting somewhere without a larger screen. The music capability is similarly functional: tight integration with the Amazon MP3 store and the ability to upload your own tracks to Amazon’s cloud and either stream them over WiFi or sync a number of tracks to the Kindle Fire for offline playback.

Audio, video, and e-books are and should be the Kindle Fire’s strengths: they are strengths of Amazon’s cloud and digital offerings. What sets the Kindle Fire apart from Amazon’s other devices is the Appstore. Given how the store has expanded over time in terms of Android phone apps, the relatively limited selection of apps for the Kindle Fire at launch is not necessarily a sign failure. As the first Android tablet aiming to catch on with a mass market, the Kindle Fire could spark developers to build tablet apps for Android in the first place. Because the Kindle Fire can be perfectly usable just with the Amazon content available, apps can be an afterthought, but are very nice to have for anyone wanting the tablet functionality in addition to the pure content consumption.

By downloading a few apps: Evernote, Seesmic, and Wolfram Alpha, in addition to the pre-loaded Pulse, the Kindle Fire feels enough like a tablet to leave home with it and still have some computing power at your fingertips. With a few productivity apps, including several office suites, a few games, and music and video content, the Kindle Fire is sitting between a traditional e-reader and a full-fledged tablet. As a WiFi-only device priced at $199 it is almost targeting iPod Touch owners more than those who have taken, or want to take, the tablet plunge with the iPad.

The Kindle Fire is smaller than an iPad, less powerful, and not really better than Apple’s device for anything outside of the e-book experience because of its size. It might be clunky browsing the web, the keyboard is good-not-great, and the document syncing and magazine experiences don’t feel as fully baked as the areas where the goal is simply “purchase from Amazon” but the Kindle Fire is primarily a device to drive sales to Amazon after all. 

When it comes down to it, when leaving the house without a bag, I can stick the Kindle Fire in a coat pocket or carry it as I would carry a single book on the train or outside the house. The iPad is a file folder of infinite capacity that can contain all your information and transform itself into a number of devices through apps. The Kindle Fire by contrast is a limitless Moleskin notebook that can do a few other things as well.

 

DRM: Shield Used as Sword?

In the wake of the bizarre Netflix/Qwikster PR circus users are left wondering what is the best way to get the most bang for their content bucks. While television programming, along with movie rentals, is not the most important financial decision out there, it is an area with a number of choices and opportunities to maximize the return on investment.  For content providers and creators, this allows them to bypass the cable companies and target their customers directly.  While this is appealing for consumers, the actual experience is not always as clean: each company is building a silo requiring users to make long-term decisions about their purchases when addressing short-term feelings about what content to enjoy.

Apple and Amazon both offer music in unprotected file formats now, but their video content is as locked down as ever.  Purchases made from the iTunes store can only be played on Apple devices: iPods, iPhones, iPads, and AppleTV, or Macs and PCs using iTunes.  Video content cannot be burned to a DVD for play on a television or re-encoded to fit smaller devices where the video quality may not be as important as the number of videos the device can store in its memory.  These are not major issues, but they require Apple to continue supporting their content in order to enjoy it.  Until the launch of iCloud, re-downloading music and movies from the iTunes store was possible only with a call to customer service.  Thankfully anyone can now look at their purchases and select which songs, movies, television shows, and apps to download for consumption and which to leave in the cloud to be used “on demand.”

Ditto Amazon: only certain, authorized devices can replay their videos.  Until the release of the Kindle Fire, Amazon itself did not have a horse in the race; they were dependent on third parties similar to Google and Google TV – the actual hardware implementing the service was in the hands of other companies.

For rentals, the inability to transfer content from one device to another is not a big deal, but when purchasing digital content, users are left with an uncertainty that their purchase will be consumable in the future.  Amazon says as much in the disclaimer before a purchase is made:

While Amazon calls this a licensing issue, it is one made possible by the inability of users to control the video they have paid for.

While no one expects their VHS tapes or DVDs to play forever, there is an  expectation that if the media isn’t broken, simply inserting it into any VCR or DVD-compatible player should allow the content to be consumed.  Apple and Amazon are large enough that for most consumers this isn’t a concern.  However, there is always the cautionary tale of Microsoft.  The Redmond software maker has had multiple DRM protection schemes, including the unfortunately named PlaysForSure, that have been abandoned for new formats and rendered obsolete despite a lack of flaws in the files themselves.  No longer able to connect with the verification server, these abandoned purchases can become digital junk.

The continuing release of set-top boxes adds another point of connection between consumers and the media they want to access.  But like Charlie Brown, their digital football is seemingly grasped from reach every time. Each box is trying to establish itself as the box to have.  AppleTV, Ruku, the Boxee Box, Google TV – each offers some of what the competitors do but never the full slate of media capabilities.  AppleTV will likely never support an Amazon or Google digital video store and those devices likewise will not offer content from the iTunes store.

Netflix is currently one of the least obtrusive DRM implementations that mainstream customers deal with. Using Netflix streaming requires one thing: a Netflix app.  There are no purchases of movies or television shows, only on-demand streams.  Unlike the pay-per-view options offered by the cable industry, Netflix streaming customers pay a flat rate every month for an all-you-can-eat plan.  The unlimited nature of Netflix means that if five minutes into a movie rental you have to stop watching, there is no need to quickly count how many hours are left for resumption.

The downside of course is that the Netflix library is at least one season behind for television shows still in production and hit or miss on movies.  There are some new releases, some old releases, and some movies that MST3K would have looked at and passed.  However, with the announcement that Netflix will exclusively purchase and broadcast “House of Cards” and now, new episodes of “Arrested Development” this may be changing.   But for $7.99 a month, casual TV watchers, who don’t care about keeping up with the latest episodes of their favorite shows can save a lot compared to the cost of a full-fledged cable package.  Even the cheapest plans offering more than over-the-air channels are likely to start at twice that figure.

While the issue of piracy is more complex than simply stealing vs. buying, this is usually the justification given by content makers and their distributors.  But what is happening is consumers are losing rights over their property.  The right of first sale, which allows for the used goods market, will likely be a relic in a few years.  Digital files don’t age and, while they can become corrupted, backups are relatively easy and cheap enough to prevent a total loss.  As with books, lending of digital movies is not like handing a friend a DVD – as of right now it is not possible to share the movie at all.  This is an important shift in how our culture views property and the rights inherent to it.

Just ten years ago it was possible to pack a bag with books, movies, and video games and head off to another location or let a friend who has not yet read, watched, and played enjoy the haul themselves.  While Apple, Google, and Amazon are concurrently pushing “one person, one device” models, they are also allowing their customers to log on to devices and websites from a remote location and access their file library as though the computer they are using is their own.

Right now, this could go either way: information will be locked down to encourage purchases and prevent anyone who didn’t purchase their own copy from benefiting from digital entertainment.  Or we may see a new world where our libraries are always with us and while it won’t be possible to lend a movie in the same way as a DVD, we could be travelling with hundreds of DVDs, shelves of books, and enough music to drive for hours so long as we have access to an Internet connection.

Dan Duquette Finally Back in Baseball as Orioles GM: What’s Next?

In a year where it seems like every team has been hunting for a general manager, dozens of names have been tossed about: former GMs, assistant GMs ready to take over for their current team or accept a promotion with another team, and long-rumored potential candidates like Kim Ng. One name that didn’t get much attention until he emerged as the front-runner in Baltimore: former Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette. After nearly a decade away from a management job in Major League Baseball, Duquette has returned to rebuild a Red Sox rival in a tough AL East.

End of an Era

Dan Duquette was the last GM of the Yawkey ownership and failed to end the championship drought while the team was still owned by the family. During the eight seasons between 1994 when he won the job and 2002 when he was fired, Duquette’s teams went 656-574, reaching the playoffs three times and taking home one AL East division title. Duquette drafted Nomar Garciaparra and Kevin Youkilis, although the latter didn’t reach the majors during Duquette’s time in Boston. He acquired Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe in trades. He brought Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon to Boston, and for what it’s worth, eventually freed the team of clubhouse cancer and dinosaur denier Carl Everett. These moves built the foundation that the Red Sox would transform into some of the greatest teams to take the field under John Henry’s ownership.

On the other hand, Duquette draftee Justin Duchscherer was traded for backup catcher Doug Mirabelli and plucky  shortstop David Eckstein was lost on waivers to the Angels. Duquette also failed to sign Mark Teixeira, a move which could have altered the fortunes of the early 2000s Red Sox tremendously.

Overall his tenure in Boston was nothing to sneeze at, and maybe, had the Yankees not gone on such an amazing run at the end of the last century, one of Duquette’s teams could have gotten lucky and made a run at a World Series. With Pedro and Nomar in their primes, a few breaks in the Sox favor could have changed history.

However, the Red Sox string of second place finishes and their inability to make it past the ALCS during Duquette’s reign left the fans wanting more. The bad taste surrounding Duquette’s time in Boston would be forever tied to one moment in 1996 when the GM said these words: “The Red Sox and our fans were fortunate to see Roger Clemens play in his prime and we had hoped to keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.”  The twilight of his career. Those words would sting Red Sox Nation while Clemens took his skills to Toronto, New York, and Houston, winning Cy Young awards along the way and made Duquette look foolish.

Today we know that part of Clemens’ rejuvenation was fueled by performance enhancing drugs. While this may be of little consolation to Duquette, it at least partially validates his assessment of Clemens in the mid-90s.

When John Henry’s ownership group completed their purchase of the Red Sox there was still a lot of work to be done before Henry could really make the team his own. In his behind the scenes book about the Red Sox, Feeding the Monster, Seth Mnookin describes the Duquette days as “needlessly combative.” Henry said the secrecy surrounding the team was worrisome and that under his control the Sox would be “committed to being open and having open lines of communication” in response to stories about minor league pitching coaches worrying about being fired if they spoke to the press. The money quote from a reporter Henry relayed to Mnookin: “Get out your broom and sweep out the Duke.” When Duquette reached the end of the road in Boston, he landed hard.

After Boston

The aftermath for Dan Duquette was not as welcoming as the GM shuffle that has taken place this year. The former Red Sox and Expos executive found himself shut out of the exclusive network of Major League Baseball. In America. Duquette was part of a team that formed the Israel Baseball League. The league lasted just one season, 2007. However, Israel, denied a team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, will be participating in the 2013 WBC. At the very least, the effort helped baseball gain traction in another country, while graduating several players to other professional baseball leagues.

Now that Dan Duquette is back in the helm of a team, time will tell if the executive can rebuild a historic franchise. Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Matt Weiters form the core to build around. Uber-prospect Manny Machado looms on the horizon, and the O’s have a stable of pitching prospects who have struggled with injuries, ineffectiveness or both.

With a three-year contract in place, Duquette has his work set out for him, the AL East is a tough division with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays battling each other for playoff contention, and the Blue Jays are pretty good too. The next wave of prospects should arrive during Duquette’s tenure and if he can surround them with some excellent under the radar pickups while drafting well, the Orioles could make enough progress to keep him around long enough to see his team be competitive.

The ultimate wild card: the Orioles have money. Baltimore was in on the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes a few years ago and it wouldn’t be impossible to see them surface as a mystery team for Prince Fielder or even Albert Pujols. At the end of the day, Duquette may leave his mark on baseball as an Oriole, rather than a Red Sox.

 

Cross-posted from Sports of Boston

Tony LaRussa, Manager to the Stars

One of the baseball’s most legendary managers called it quits Monday. Just a few days after winning his third World Series title, his second with the St. Louis Cardinals, the bullpen manager hung up his cleats for good.

Will Albert Pujols follow his lead out of town? Will LaRussa return to manage the NL All-Star team? We’ll find out as the offseason kicks into gear.

One thing is for sure, Tony LaRussa left a lasting impact on major league bullpen management.