Amazon Picks Up Goodreads For Kindle Social and More

GoodreadsA few weeks ago, Amazon announced that they were going to acquire Goodreads, one of the most popular social sites on the internet for book lovers.  Goodreads has become a great place to go for sharing reviews, recommendations, ideas, and more since its debut in 2007.  While this is certain to be mutually beneficial in many ways, we have to assume that the goal here is to develop the Kindle Social experience into a real selling point for the eReader line.

The Kindle has an interesting position with regard to social interaction.

By its very nature it allows greater privacy than most paper books would.  No matter what situation you happen to be in, nobody can tell what you are reading without looking directly over your shoulder or asking you.  This cuts out the opportunity for people to randomly discover shared literary interests.

At the same time, because it offers access to practically any book in print at a moment’s notice there is a lot of opportunity for sharing and recommendations.  Users just need a way to willingly share their activity now that book covers can’t do the job.  The current integration with Twitter and Facebook are alright in this regard, but really a dedicated space for that sort of posting would go over better.  Hence the Goodreads acquisition.

There are a few things that both organizations stand to gain beyond that, of course.

One of the main services that Goodreads provides its users is book recommendations.  Regardless of what your opinions are of their other business strengths, nobody is going to deny that Amazon is the best there is at accurately targeting recommendations based on previous purchases.  Taking that technology and applying it to these book lists will improve the performance immensely.

That helps to drive up business at Amazon, since the Kindle Store remains the best place to buy eBooks.  In addition to the sales, there’s a wealth of data to work with on the Goodreads site.  Tying the review system there into the main Amazon site could provide much more accurate information for potential shoppers.  The associations and trends found between various readers will probably do some good in refining recommendations further as well.

It’s going to be a while yet before anything changes.  The acquisition that was just announced won’t actually take place for a couple months.  Even after that there will need to be a fair amount of work before anything is ready for release.

Millions of readers are about to get a much more robust social experience out of their reading.

Amazon Acquires Ivona Software

Amazon announced today that they will acquire Ivona Software.  Ivona is the company that currently supplies the Kindle Fire line of tablets with its speech recognition capabilities.  Although there is little in the way of details regarding the terms of purchase, we can be certain that this signals an increased emphasis on audio input in the future for these products.

The immediate assumption that has to be made after this acquisition is that Amazon has its eye on a Siri imitation or something with similar capabilities.  Now naturally there has been some disappointment over how poorly Siri has lived up to the hype for iPhone users, but that doesn’t change anything about the appeal of the concept or the possibility that this could be a big thing for the future.

That’s especially true if Amazon ever comes through with their frequently-rumored Kindle Phone.  While we haven’t exactly seen any details emerging so far, indicating that this is a long way off yet even if it will probably be a future focus for the company, building this sort of capability to establish feature parity with Apple and Google products only makes sense.  There wouldn’t be much room to undercut prices the way the Kindle Fire made its big first impression on the tablet scene, so being able to line up with other popular smartphones feature for feature could be particularly important.

On the tablet side of things, there are other ways that Ivona could help things improve. Since the Kindle Fire HD is a consumption-based media tablet, it’s only natural to assume that something along the line of the Microsoft Kinect’s voice controls could be in the works as well.  Hooking up a tablet to stream Amazon Instant Video to your HDTV and being able to control it with a word from across the room would be quite nice if they can pull it off properly.

The potential for improving accessibility is also worth noting.  Ivona already works in various ways to improve support for the blind and visually impaired.  That would probably be more useful on the eReader side of things.  Amazon’s initial attempts to get their eReading line made into a standard educational tool were hindered by its inability to accommodate the visually impaired.  They have come a long way since then in various products, but this could offer new directions for them to approach the problem from.

Perhaps most important, though less impressive in terms of new feature selections, is the possibility that this will lead to more expansive localization options.  The press release makes a point of noting that Ivona offers voice and language products in 44 voices across 17 languages with a number more still in development.  Given the international growth of the Kindle line as a whole, that’s not a bad resource to be able to draw on.

Kindle Fire HD 8.9” First Impressions

Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 8.9” tablet is now shipping out to many of those who got their preorders in early.  While new customers will have to wait until at least December 3rd for their new devices to be mailed, it’s a good time to take a look at what Amazon has done here and what the chances are that they will be able to mark a success in the large tablet section of the market.

Mostly I’m looking at the actual experience of using the new tablet.  Now that it’s possible to play with, we can get a good idea of how it’s going to go over with customers throughout the holiday season.

Display

The visuals are nice.  We’re working with a much higher resolution now and it shows.  The colors are basically the same as you find on the smaller model.  Not much more to say than that there is absolutely nothing to complain about here, even when it comes to watching HD video content.

Sound

Maybe it’s just because of how impressive the last Kindle Fire I had in hand turned out to sound, but I was looking forward to hearing what this one could do. The quality is almost exactly the same.  There might be some small improvement over the 7” model when it comes to the effectiveness of the stereo speakers but if so it’s minimal.  Still, both Kindle Fire HD models stand above every other tablet on the market today when it comes to sound quality.

General User Experience

The 8.9” model is a bit harder to use one-handed but it’s still not bad in that respect.  In every other way I find it superior to the 7”.  The weight is little enough that long use isn’t a problem.  The larger screen makes for better browsing and app usage.  The size is about as large as it can get without becoming as unwieldy as an iPad.  Not bashing the iPad, this is just going to see a lot more regular use than mine by comparison because of the slight decrease in size.

Overall

This would make a good selection for anybody wanting a slightly more powerful consumption tablet.  It’s smaller than either the Nexus 10 or the iPad, but larger than the less expensive budget tablets that Amazon is known for dominating.  The price is right at $299, though I would recommend springing for the extra storage available at $369 if the option is available.

If you want a portable device to watch video on, this is likely to be the best thing on the market for a while.  The Kindle Fire HD 8.9” combines sound, video, and streaming quality to make a truly excellent experience.

If you’re looking for a functional tablet for productivity, it’s still ok?  The iPad (and now Microsoft’s Surface) is the leader in terms of tablet productivity for a reason.  Make no mistake, Amazon isn’t intruding there yet.  This should be viewed purely as a means to tap into their ecosystem and the media sources it can link you to.  What it tries to do, however, the new Kindle Fire does very well indeed.

Kindle Fire HD 8.9” Takes on iPad But May Face Other, Unexpected Competition

We’ve recently talked about the release of the new Kindle Fire HD 8.9”.  It’s a solid device that gives every indication of being worth an investment.  While not quite as versatile as many Android tablets due to Amazon’s proprietary software configuration that prevents access to the Google Play service, there is little else to complain about and a lot to be excited for.  Some reports indicate that between this and the 7” model, Amazon’s tablets will outsell the iPad Mini 2 to 1 over the upcoming holiday season.

All that sounds great for Amazon and it’s definitely a sign that they will remain a major part of the Android tablet scene for some time to come.  They may be in trouble as time goes on, however.  The problem is not what many people have expected.  The iPad is hard to compete against, but the surge in video game consoles with touchscreen accessories may hit Amazon in a major way.

The Wii U just dropped, which is what brings this to mind.  Nintendo’s new console comes with a controller that doubles as a tablet.  It offers a supplementary second display that should come in handy in everything from game play to movie watching.  Sure, it requires a Wii U console to work, but that also allows the user to tap into a wide selection of content associated with that system.

Microsoft is also said to be working on a 7” tablet to supplement the Xbox 360 and the as-yet unannounced Xbox 720.  Their Smartglass software already allows anybody with a portable device (smartphone or tablet), or even a convenient PC, to tap into the console experience.  The Xbox Tablet, as it’s being called, will offer many of the same benefits that the Wii U controller boasts as well as serving the role of standalone portable.

Now, the main use of the Kindle Fire line is in consumption.  Amazon designed them for that purpose and there has been no real effort to make them into anything but a convenient gateway into Amazon’s digital content selection.  This means that in many ways the same customers they are looking at attracting are also likely to be interested in gaming and entertainment consoles, for obvious reasons.  If we’re looking at a class of devices that are exceedingly popular and tie into their own proprietary tablets, as in the case of these consoles, it may cut into Kindle Fire prospects.

While this is all speculation, I can’t help but feel that Amazon is going to have to come up with some special service that distinguishes their hardware offering in the next year or so.  The budget tablet market is still going strong, but there are a lot of big names that seem about as well equipped as Amazon who are set to enter the market.  Since all the digital content sold through the company is meant to be platform-agnostic, there’s going to need to be something special done.  Otherwise it’s only a matter of time before the iPad is just one of many strong competitors for the Kindle Fire HD.

Amazon Offers Unity Plugins to Kindle Fire Developers

Amazon has been making an effort to interest app developers, especially game developers, in their distribution platform lately.  As has been mentioned here in the past, their GameCircle will allow for all sorts of social features to be integrated into just about any game without much trouble.  Before this, many of the more popular Android games were unable to make use of their full feature set because of the Kindle Fire’s disconnection from Google services.

Moving forward along the same lines, Amazon has released plugins for the popular Unity game engine that should make it easier than ever for developers to add some in-app purchasing to their productions and build GameCircle into their games.

There are a number of reasons that this will be attractive.  According to the press release regarding these plugins, in-app purchasing averages more than twice the revenue generation of paid app sales per transaction.  Developers who can interest their users enough to encourage the occasional purchase will benefit from ongoing sales and therefore enjoy a fairly nice stream of income.

The GameCircle features help with this.  GameCircle’s main attractions are Leaderboards, Achievements, and Whispersync for Games.  The first two are easy ways to nudge players into spending more time immersed in the app.  More exposure and more personal time investment means more likelihood of making a casual purchase.  The latter feature, Whispersync for Games, encourages use of multiple devices and allows players to pick up where they left off even if they delete local data.  That means that there is a far lower bar to replay should somebody be interested in running through their favorites a second time.

This will be both good and bad for the players, but mostly good.

By bringing these features to the Kindle Fire, Amazon has finally provided all the tools that developers will need to properly prepare their apps for distribution via the Amazon Appstore for Android.  This will lead to more games, and apps in general, being made available for the Kindle Fire.

Whispersync for Games should go a long way to encourage quality game design as well.  Since there is reason to hope that users will keep coming back now that their progress and achievements can be saved even after deleting an app temporarily, there is more reason to provide ongoing support and updates.

Of course the ease with which in-app purchases can be offered also means a slew of new apps meant to do nothing more than milk microtransactions out of every user.  These types of lazy designs are a big presence on Google Play, but there’s been nothing keeping them away from Amazon aside from the extra effort it would take.  I’m not referring to the genuinely malicious software, of course, but even the merely bad can be obnoxious to watch out for.

Expect to see more games with more features springing up in the months to come thanks to these plugins.

Kindle Black Friday Specials for 2012

Every year Black Friday sales get more hyped and involve more ridiculous deals.  In some cases that’s a bad thing, especially when it involves camping outside stores for silly amounts of time to get a chance at one of the only two units available in a particular sale.  In many others it’s just a great time to save some money.

Since we know that a sale is on the way let’s take a look at what to expect as far as discounts this week.

According to Buyer’s Review, we can expect the following deals in brick & mortal stores this Friday:

  • Best Buy: Amazon Kindle Fire – $159.99 bundled with free $30 Best Buy Gift Card
  • Office Depot: Amazon Kindle Fire – $159.99 bundled with $25 Visa Card
  • Staples: Amazon Kindle Fire – $159, bundled with $20 Staples Gift Card
  • Office Max: Amazon Kindle Fire – $159
  • Best Buy: 16GB Amazon Kindle Fire HD – $199.99 free $30 Best Buy Gift Card included
  • Office Max: 16GB Amazon Kindle Fire HD – $199, bundled with $25 Office Max Gift Card
  • Staples: 16GB Amazon Kindle Fire HD – $199, bundled with $20 Staples Gift Card
  • Staples: 32GB Amazon Kindle Fire HD – $249, bundled with $20 Staples Gift Card

We do have every reason to believe that Amazon will use this opportunity to further promote the Kindle line directly through their own storefront as well, though.

Sadly, we’re not going to be seeing a sale on the Kindle Paperwhite.  The eReader side of things has proven so popular since the Paperwhite was released that an order today will take over a month to get to its destination, just barely making it in time for Christmas if you spring for 2-day shipping.  In a matter of days it will likely be impossible to order a Kindle Paperwhite and have it before 2013.

We will certainly be seeing this sale day used as an opportunity to promote the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD, however.  An effort was clearly made to get the Kindle Fire HD 8.9” out before Black Friday, which indicates that the larger tablet will be a part of the promotion as well.

Looking at the store offers above, nobody is actually discounting the Kindle Fires themselves.  All that is being added is a promo gift card.  Given all the blowback Amazon has been getting from these same retailers about showrooming, I expect that the online deal will go a bit further.  How much further is difficult to predict, but 10-20% off the price would create a huge surge of interest.

Remember that Amazon is using the Kindle Fire as a cheap option for content sales.  They’re not making much on the devices themselves.  As such I don’t think we can expect to see a $99 Kindle Fire, even using refurbished 1st Gen models.  Since recent teardowns point to there being a bit more profit than the earlier generation allowed for in a single unit, however, they have some leeway.

I know that I’ll be watching for a $160 Kindle Fire HD and I would be surprised if I don’t see one by the end of the week.

Amazon Kindle Turns 5

As of November 19th, the Kindle is five years old.  Since its first incarnation we have watched it go from a fairly clunky attempt at introducing something new into the market to an elegant piece of technology that continues to deserve its position at the top of the same market it helped popularize.  We’ve been watching this progression since the beginning (our first post here was less than a month after launch on December 15th 2007) and it’s been a great time.

Looking back at the first generation Kindle is a great way to help understand why it hasn’t been just the hardware keeping the line going.  Amazon made a fairly good eReader, but even at the time there were superior options.  The first Sony Readers to be released in the US were lighter, faster, and generally more pleasant to use.  Still, Amazon pulled off a “good enough” device and supported it with the best digital reading content anywhere.

The Gen 1 Kindle had a resolution of 800 x 600, less than a quarter gigabyte of storage space, was uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time (compared to newer models, though it was great at the time), and would run you around $400 without a case or any books included.  About the only thing it had going for it compared to future products was the SD card slot, which was eliminated in the second generation.

That’s not to say it was a bad device so much as to illustrate how far things have come.  When new, the first Kindle captured the attention of huge numbers of people despite the price and was often held up as a valid alternative to the iPad.  That comparison is nonsense, but it illustrates how interesting people found the idea.

For comparison, you can now get the Kindle Paperwhite (assuming you can find one since they are in short supply at the moment) for $119.  It has a 6”, 212PPI display running with a 758 x 1024 resolution.  Battery life will last you over a month at a time in many cases.  The internal storage us up to two gigabytes and you can download your books on your home WiFi.  There is lighting for the screen without any of the problems that E Ink was solving compared to lighted screens in the first place.  Five years has meant a lot of progress.

Most importantly, the Kindle Store and Amazon’s support for its associated features have expanded even more.  The whole publishing industry has been forced to take digital distribution seriously and nobody does it better.  Kindles now enjoy a presence in millions of homes around the country and we expect to see even more of them in organizational settings like libraries now that central management tools have been released.

What is still to come for the Kindle is open to debate.  Some people expect a move away from eReaders to concentrate on the Kindle Fire tablet line.  Personally, I doubt it.  The Kindle eReader is what put Amazon on the map in terms of computing devices and it will continue to be a major point of interest in the future.  The only real question is how much further they can take it and in what direction.

Send to Kindle Becomes Browser Staple

For the most part Amazon’s “Send to Kindle” program has worked out extremely well for them.  It creates a convenient means to send just about any readable content you have on hand to your Kindle with no hassle.  Anybody with an internet connection can use it and there is absolutely no complexity to the interface.  You simply select your document and send it.

Apparently that wasn’t enough.  Now it is possible to pick up Send to Kindle for Firefox.  This takes a slightly different approach, though it delivers much the same functionality as the desktop integration we’ve had a chance to get used to.

Initial reviews have largely been positive.  There was some concern with compatibility as the browser plugin was not properly updated to account for one of Mozilla’s frequent software updates and that seems to have cost Amazon a large share of its overall rating in the Firefox Extensions rating system.  Since the last software update there have been few written complaints.

Rather than replicating the experience of the desktop app, Send to Kindle for Firefox takes on the likes of Instapaper.  It will allow the preservation of web pages for viewing at the reader’s convenience without the need for perpetually open tabs or being stuck in front of the computer at all.  Content can be read, preserved for reference, or even archived in the user’s Kindle documents.

The only real problem that seems to have come up so far, at least based on my own experience, is the inability of the new extension to push documents to the whole range of Kindle apps.  Kindle for Windows 8 is unable to retrieve these documents as is the Kindle Cloud Reader.  These are two of the most-used options available when a Kindle device is not on hand and neither will even acknowledge anything that isn’t purchased directly through the Kindle Store.

That’s a problem that has been needing attention for a number of reasons for quite some time now.  While it is a problem that these apps can’t access user content, it is hardly fair to let that color a review of an unrelated service beyond the obvious noting of such a problem.  If you need to have access to saved content in places beyond your mobile device or eReader, it might be best to avoid getting too excited about this one.

This will be of the most interest to people who truly despise ads in the web reading.  It allows you to conveniently read anything you want on your Kindle ad-free without recourse to tedious copy/paste options.  There are still some problems, especially in badly coded or complexly formatted sites, where you can end up with jumbles of code.  It isn’t a perfect application and you’re certainly not going to be able to consider it completely finished just yet.  As it stands, however, this is a valuable tool and adds a great new feature to the “Send to Kindle” application toolset.

Amazon Expands Android Game Development With “Air Patriots”

It’s clear that Amazon has an interest in building popularity for their gaming features through the site’s Appstore for Android.  Social gaming is a huge attraction for customers as evidenced by the popularity of Achievement systems on various gaming platforms and the success of Farmville and its many imitations.  In order to draw developers into creating content specific to Amazon’s own platform, it only makes sense that they would go out of their way to create some content of their own that can serve as an example.  As far as examples go, the new Air Patriots app is an exceptionally good one.

As a game, it’s fairly interesting.  While the basic description would be “tower defense”, Air Patriots does a lot to vary the now-familiar formula in a way that keeps it interesting and helps keep your attention during play.

The basic concept is simple.  You get tanks coming in and have to map out flight paths for your planes to attack them before they can make it to the end of the line.  Your “towers” are always on the move.  Since they can also collide, this means that there is a lot of coordination that needs to be done.  The emphasis is on adapting to the changing needs of the situation rather than just maximizing the advantage of natural choke points.

The implementation is clearly meant to highlight the most useful capabilities of Amazon Game Circle.  Syncing is the first thing featured in a new installation.  A prompt for activation appears on the first run.  This removes the need to keep personal save files on your device, allowing for better storage management.  That goes along with the leaderboard and achievement functions, which are also available at the touch of a button from any point in the game.

In-app purchasing is also quite prominent.  For the most part all important features are available in the game without real money payments.  Specific maps and planes are only attained by way of cash transaction, however.  There is a lot of content for a free game even without that and this isn’t an app designed to leech microtransactions out of users, but the additional available content will be appealing enough to attract interest.

What makes this a smart move on Amazon’s part, especially if we disregard any potential income from the game itself, is the quality.  If they had just come up with an app that included the features in question, this would be a footnote.  Since Air Patriots not only implements Game Circle well but also switches up a popular but often uninteresting game concept enough that it can appeal even to experienced players, it becomes something more.

If Air Patriots becomes a hit, which it quite likely will thanks to the free status and the interesting implementation, the benefit is much greater than the sum of the in-app transaction income.  It proves that the Game Circle services manage to equal the best of the competition.  Since the feature set is almost identical to the iOS alternative, setting up Apple’s as the competing ecosystem, it gains Amazon significant ground.

As a recommendation, I’d advise anybody who owns a Kindle Fire or equivalent tablet to give this a try.  They did a good job here, even if that was likely a secondary goal.

Kindle Paperwhite Hands-On Review

Having used the Kindle Keyboard for quite some time and enjoyed it to the point of returning my Kindle Touch when it didn’t quite meet the same standards (it was fine and had its own perks, but wasn’t as strong in some of the areas I cared about), I didn’t jump on the Paperwhite when it was first available.  I’ve played with it enough to know what I’m talking about in various capacities, but only recently have I picked up my own.  Aside from one small complaint, it’s exactly what I was hoping it would be.

Screen Quality

The contrast of the Kindle Keyboard was pretty much ideal for me.  It created the experience of reading an old, familiar paperback.  The new screen was troubling at first because the contrast was actually too extreme.  I would say that it more or less resembles a newer high-gloss trade paperback.  Not my favorite presentation, but it was very simple to get used to and quickly became a non-issue.  All the other benefits of E Ink displays were naturally still around.

Lighting

The Paperwhite’s signature feature is obviously the front-lighting technology.  It was definitely an improvement over the Nook Simpletouch w/ Glowlight.  The light was more evenly distributed and brighter without creating a greater drain on battery life.  The issues with banding on the bottom of the display are not exaggerated necessarily, but they also have little effect on reading.  I found it somewhat annoying to have trouble seeing the progress bar at some points when reading in complete darkness, but the dark areas are still readable and don’t tend to extend into the text in any meaningful way.

Reading Experience

The overall experience beyond simply the screen is also worth noting.  The loss of 1.2 ounces compared to the Kindle Keyboard makes a small difference overall, but I could see it being meaningful over long reading sessions for some people.  As a reader used to holding the old model for hours at a time, it didn’t stand out as particularly useful (especially if you’re using a case anyway) but the reduction was still big enough to note.

The “Time to Read” meter is better than expected.  It comes up with an accurate measure of your reading pace after a few minutes, basically enough time to fall into a measured pattern, and generally gets things right from there.  Obviously it can’t account for breaks and distractions, but how could it?

Recommendation

If you’re in the market for a new eReader, the Paperwhite is the only real option at the moment.  Nothing else comes close to offering the same quality.

Is it enough to consider going out of the way to upgrade from a previous model?  Under most circumstances I would say yes.  The only really obnoxious shortcoming the device has is a lack of physical page turn buttons.  In every other way it’s a functional upgrade.  For me, the weight of the accumulated features made the Paperwhite an appealing option, but it isn’t at all unreasonable to consider that a make or break factor.  If you can, give it a try and find out for yourself.