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The Open Source Column with Simon Brew – Hardware Niches

Is one piece of hardware for one job a bad thing?

You might not be a fan of it, but there are a few things to admire about the Amazon Kindle. It’s an eReader with a simple job and employs the technology it needs to do it and not much more. At a point in time where people routinely ask whether a Core i3 or Core i5 system is best for word processing, it’s refreshing to have technology that’s chosen and tailored for a specific task.

Of course, there are downsides. The proprietary nature of the software that Amazon has deployed is a disappointment, and the proper support of an open format would be a hugely appreciated step in the right direction. Yet right now, Amazon is falling foul of the temptation that seems to infect all companies selling technology: the desire to make everything faster. After all, faster is better, isn’t it?

The Kindle Fire launched in America last year, and was Amazon’s clear entry into the tablet market. It’s not a bad device, either. But it’s not a Kindle. A Kindle, as Amazon originally told us, is a device to allow us to read eBooks. A Kindle deploys an E Ink system that maximises battery life, and makes for an efficient marriage of software and the hardware needed to run it.

The Kindle Fire, whatever you think of the end device, is an example of a company being tempted by bigger, brighter things and taking a punt. In itself, that’s no bad thing. Look for the company that’s never bothered to take a risk and you’ll find yourself searching, invariably, through a list of bankruptcies. Amazon has every right to take on the iPad. It’s just disappointing that’s what it’s chosen to do, when it had found some distinction by not doing so.

amazon ipad nexus galaxy tab
Is Amazon’s new Kindle Fire HD overkill?

Every now and then, when I need to ground my technology expectations, I like to take a look around my kitchen. My fridge, no matter how flash the design they try to sell me, still has one job: to chill what’s inside it. The washing machine, for all its flashing lights, is still a tool for washing my clothes. The microwave oven? Well, it’s never offered to play me music, or read me a book, while it’s cooking one of Findus’s finest.

Does it make me a Luddite, then, to suggest that Amazon’s eye has gone off the ball here? That it’s succumbed to the temptation that faces many companies of its ilk and instead of finding compelling ways to refine its Kindle product, it’s instead looked to make it faster, and jazzier – and, therefore, less relevant?

In the US, Barnes And Noble has backed the Nook platform, which is beginning a broader global rollout before the end of 2012. So maybe that’s accelerating Amazon’s thinking. But I wonder if the lesson of Nintendo isn’t worth heeding.

After all, its DS handheld console was to be trounced by Sony’s PSP machine once upon a time. The Nintendo DS had worse graphics,
worse sound and at one stage it even had Chris Tarrant advertising it. But it also knew its place. Nintendo knew where its strengths were and deployed them. The PSP missed the point, delivered some decent games, but came second by a long, long way. The PS Vita, its follow-up, has repeated and magnified the same mistakes.

The Kindle Fire? It might well take off. But there’s nothing of value it adds to the job of reading text on a screen, while prolonging battery life. And isn’t that what the Kindle was invented for in the first place?