Will the Fire burn its way into higher ed?

September 29, 2011, 4:20 pm

In case you didn’t hear, Amazon has announced a major upgrade to the entire line of Kindle devices, including a new 7″ tablet device called the Kindle Fire. The Fire won’t be released until November 15, but already the phrase “iPad killer” is being used to describe it. Wired Campus blogger Jeff Young put up a brief post yesterday with a roundup of quick takes on the Fire’s potential in higher education. One of those thoughts was mine. I’ve had some time to look around at what we know about the Fire at this point. I have to say I am still skeptical about the Fire in higher education.

It seems like the Fire is a very well-made device. I’m not so interested in getting one for myself — I’ve got a current-generation Kindle and an iPhone 4, and am very happy with both — but I’m considering getting one for my kids. (They used to have a single iPod Touch they all shared, but my oldest decided to try a game of Angry Birds on it while in the bathtub. Hey Apple, how about making waterproofed, ruggedized iPod Touches and selling them in 3-packs at Costco? But I digress.)  The Fire does everything the kids would use such a device for:  streaming video, playing games, reading books, listening to music, and using the web browser (particularly for Flash-based content).

And I think there’s the root of my skepticism about the Fire in higher ed. The Fire seems made for these kinds of kid-friendly things — but not much else. For the sorts of things college students do, the Fire seems limited. There’s electronic textbooks, of course. But move anywhere past the consumption of media and the Fire seems to lose its utility. Could you write a research paper on it? Or a \( \LaTeX \) document? Or a computer program? How about creating and then giving a slideshow presentation? Or running a computer algebra system to do your math homework? Or shooting a video? When it comes to consuming things, the Fire seems like a great device. For creating things? Not so much. And college work is about creating things, not consuming them.

Two possible rebuttals to that previous paragraph:

  • There are Android apps for that, and if there aren’t, surely the Fire will be cause for more people to write apps. I took a look through Amazon’s app store. While there are some apps available that mimic standard software for doing things like I’ve listed above, at best they are mimics and at worst there is nothing there at all. Wolfram|Alpha doesn’t count as a real substitute for MATLAB or Maple, for instance. And as far as new apps for the Fire are concerned, that would be just speculation.
  • If there’s no app for what you want to do, use the browser — Google Docs, Prezi, etc. The browser does seem to be the most technologically compelling part of the device, and I’m interested to see what it can do. (Although there are security concerns.) But, would you want to edit a document on a 7″ screen? Some people would say “yes” but I would think those are in the minority. And this is assuming that the browser behaves well with web-based apps, which is something we don’t know yet. (I also wonder about how many people use browser extensions to get things done — I couldn’t live without my Evernote and Readability Chrome extensions — and those would be left behind if I used a new browser.)

So I don’t see the Kindle Fire becoming a game-changing ubiquitous computing device in higher education. To be fair, Amazon never claimed that it would be. Will students consider en masse the kind of upgrade I’m thinking of — from one media-consumption device to another? I think that’s possible, especially given the price point of $199, in which case the Fire will have some impact in higher ed. Quite possibly the biggest impact the Fire will have in higher education is incremental, by simply providing good competition for Apple, which seems not to have been greatly challenged by any of the Android tablets of recent months. Prices will drop and performance will improve, and students will win.

But for now, I think the best is still yet to come with respect to the tablet market. I expect the real game-changer will come when Apple’s OS X and iOS finally converge and we have a real computer with the innards of a Macbook Pro in the body of an iPad — and hopefully that will be ready the next time I’m up for a computer upgrade.

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