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I wanted to believe, I really did.  It has been over a month since my first impressions of the Amazon Kindle Fire.  Over the holidays, I processed a return for my Kindle Fire.  When the Fire was announced I was intrigued and excited as I thought that Amazon had the real potential to make a great product and the customer base to capitalize on that potential.  For me, it just didn’t live up to the hype.  I’ll stress that last sentence…this is my opinion based on my experiences/desires.  As with anything in life, your mileage may vary.

So what went wrong?

I used the Fire a lot.  I watched videos on it daily (my evening ritual of getting caught up on TV) via Netflix and Hulu apps.  I rented about 10 movies via Amazon on the device.  For video, it was great.  For everything else, it was pretty much frustrating for me.  I’ve been able to isolate it to a few areas: apps, user experience, prejudice.

Apps

I downloaded the free daily app from the Amazon Android store daily…and ended up with a device full of sub-standard products mostly.  The Hulu app really was the only 3rd party one that I felt was designed for the Fire and did most things well.  Even then it had quirks, but mostly it was fine.  Netflix’s app is horrible, lagging, confusing and not enjoyable to use before you get to the playing content.  Most other apps just weren’t doing anything for me.

The lack of a Mail solution *provided by the device* for my mail configuration led to a decreased usage in the device to me.  The responsiveness in the games that I acquired was just not there as well.  Overall I felt the only “app” I was using was video playback.  Everything else wasn’t cutting it…even the Kindle reading app was just too bright for me for long periods of reading.

User Experience

Large area of failure here for me.  Here’s my list of areas that lacked polish and just failed:

  • Hardware home button – I’m realizing how important this really is.  My kids couldn’t figure out how to get back to the ‘start’ screen.  On the iPad, they know immediately.
  • Software ‘home bar’ (not sure what to call it) sometimes appeared, sometimes didn’t.
  • Touch responsiveness – I felt like I had to do gestures multiple times to get it to respond.  The first update was said to fix some of this, but it didn’t do anything noticeable for my use.
  • Touch feedback – I know this seems odd, but there were times I couldn’t tell if I had actually completed a touch interaction…visual state changes didn’t happen, etc.
  • Orientation changing – general inconsistency here in what was supported or not within the own set of experiences delivered by the Fire.  But the transition from one orientation to another was jarring, like a snap rather than a smooth transition.
  • Apps experience – no consistency.  I’m not looking for lets-make-every-app-the-same consistency, but as a user there was know real reliability in controls usage, visuals, responsiveness, action expectations, etc.  This is the good/bad of the Android platform – ultimate freedom but at the price of confusion and quality sometimes.
  • Application lifetime – the management of the state of an application was horrible for an end-user.  The parts of Android really showed through here.  I would occasionally get “not responding” windows in an application or when trying to start one.  These types of things do not pass the mother-in-law sniff test for me.

These were some of the things that continually frustrated me.  There were other nits, but not always in my face. 

Prejudice

Aside from any technical reasons the biggest factor for my return is prejudice.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Amazon.  I’m a Prime member, and only get my purchased digital media from them (i.e., video rentals and MP3).  They have great service offerings and catalog of goods.  These are all the reasons I thought they could execute well out-of-the-gate with the Fire.

However, I also have an iPad.

Make no mistake about it: if you use an iPad for the same amount of time you use a Kindle Fire, you will likely share the same experience that the iPad just is an all-around better product currently.  Now the media (and users like myself) are the ones drawing the comparisons of the Fire to an iPad.  Amazon itself hasn’t done any comparisons side-by-side or even remotely close.  They have never marketed (to my knowledge) the Fire as an iPad competitor.  But that doesn’t matter…because consumers rule the world and we have already drawn that conclusion.  Bottom line is that if you are making a touch device I can travel with that has media and a store where I can get application and content – you’re competing with the iPad.

Since I already am an iPad user I could not erase the experience that I have with my iPad when using the Fire.  All my user experience annoyances around touch are because it is just better on the iPad.  If I didn’t have an iPad, maybe my perception would be hugely different.  But since I have one, my prejudice is set and the comparison bar as well.

Holiday gift taste test

When I arrived to the in-laws for the holidays they mentioned they were getting my wife’s ~80yr old (*very* active) grandmother a Kindle Fire because that is what she wanted.  I shirked a bit (and probably commented too much) at the idea and told them I didn’t think this was a good idea.  GG (as we call her since she has 12 great-grandchildren) is not technically savvy and has never had anything remotely considered “new tech” in her life.  I knew that it would fall on me to be the resident Nick Burns and trainer for the holiday week.  And the time did come where I had to do that.  It went something like this *before* we started configuring her Fire…

Me: GG, why do you want a Fire?
GG: I want to get ‘with the times’ and this seems to be a hot item.
Me: Do you have an Amazon account or have ever bought anything on Amazon?
GG: No, never. Can’t I put books on it?
Me: Yes, but where do you plan on getting those books?
GG: Can’t I get them anywhere?
Me: No, you’ll be buying them through Amazon.

NOTE: I didn’t want to explain that technically you could put other publications on there as I knew that would be an action never accomplished.

GG: You mean I can’t get something from Barnes and Noble and put it on my Fire?
Me: No. But why would you, Amazon has a massive content library.
GG: Well, that seems monopolistic. What about movies?
Me: Yep, you can get movies, but through Amazon.
Me: Most of the time anything you put on there you will be buying from Amazon

This point seemed to have been lost on GG when desiring this device.  Regardless we proceeded with the setup.  Now since the device was purchased from the mother-in-law, when powered on it was attached to her account and we had to set up a new account for GG.  This was going to be fun, I thought.

The first step was to create an Amazon account since she didn’t have one.  The first screen on the Fire to do this asks for 4 simple bits of information: email, username, password, password confirmation.  This was the first introduction GG had to a software keyboard and it did not go well.  The first mistake made was to “press” the keyboard and I had to educate that click, press, push are no longer useful but rather tap, swipe, tap+hold are the new ways she needed to think.  This took some training as she continually hit wrong keys, held the key too long which produced duplicates, etc.  I am not sure if it was her bifocals or what but GG was continually ‘off by 1’ on the keyboard and we had many times to The password field was the hardest because it obfuscated the letter after typing it, providing minimal visual time to see if what was typed was correct.  Now I timed this exercise myself so I could see how long this really took.  With no exaggeration the time to complete this screen was about 30 minutes.  The password/re-enter password took up most of that time.  The next screen was address information…to which I offered to enter this data for her :-).  After that was credit card data.

GG: Why do they need my credit card?
Me: How do you plan on buying anything, money order?

In seriousness, this pointed to a generational gap of this concept of stored account information for one-click purchasing that is available on things like Amazon, Apple, anywhere.

We moved on to a review of the Fire and notable me mentioning that the user guide itself was a Kindle book.  This did not please GG as she was used to a manual.  Since she is a Scrabble lover and other folks in the house were playing Words with Friends, we downloaded that app, set her up an account, and taught her how to play that.  Again, the touch interaction here was painful to watch.

My bottom line for sharing this anecdote is that I don’t think the Fire is an every-generation device.  Contrast that to the iPad, where I think she would have had a much better on-boarding experience.  I left GG alone for the day with her device and the next day she shared her frustration that things didn’t seem to work and it was hard to use the touch keyboard and understand what to do.  Now I can easily (and will) chalk this up to a generational thing and a first-time ‘device’ user in GG.  However, it pointed to a fact to me that the Fire is only for a class of folks who are familiar with computers in a more-than-one-time-usage manner.

Summary

I will stress that again, for me, the Kindle Fire was a bust.  I still faithfully have my own Kindle reader which I will still hail as the ultimate in reading devices (and think that is what GG should exchange her Fire for).  The Fire, in current form, however is a bust in my opinion.  I think Amazon *can* get this right if they put some muscle behind it and tighten up the Android edges that show and concentrate a little more on experience refinement.  I absolutely loved the size of the device (hoping Apple takes note) and think that in a few versions they might get it right.

But for now, the Kindle Fire has been returned…and with a great customer service policy, my money fully refunded, satisfaction guaranteed.

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I’ve never been so frustrated with a piece of software as I have been with iTunes lately.

NOTE: Yes, I work for Microsoft.  Yes I’m aware they make the Zune.  I’ve got years invested in hardware with iPods, and until someone makes an OEM integration kit as good as what I have, I can’t switch.  Truth be told, from a portable device player, I *do* think the Zune is better.  But let’s just leave that out of this argument for now.

In my home there are roughly 4 iPods floating around.  We have a library of over 5,000 songs both popular and not that are in our digital library.  That digital library is mostly MP3s, mixed with some iTunes purchased songs (although not since Amazon MP3 began).  That library sits on a shared drive on my Windows Home Server so it can be accessed through various streaming means (Home Server streams to iTunes software, XBOX, etc.).

Also in my home are roughly 6 computers ranging from desktop to laptops (mostly laptops).  These are used between my wife and myself (and one for the kids).

We all listen to music on our devices and via our machines.  We all want to listen to the same library, create our custom playlists and have them available everywhere.  We all want to be able to sync on whatever computer we want, but we’ll settle to be tied to one that you can pair with.

iTunes…sucks.

Yes, I’m looking at you iTunes.  I’m aware of the other options like Songbird, etc. but frankly I haven’t tried them out yet.  If you have and they will solve my woes, can you share your experiences?

Why does iTunes suck?  Easy…

  • It assumes 1 user/1 computer – the “library” is a local and static library unless the user interacts with it.  What I mean by this is it does not have the ability to monitor folders (like pretty much every other software out there for media does).  I want to point my iTunes library to my server share and whenever I add music to it via other computers, that other ‘libraries’ will be aware of it and just add it to my local library.
  • Portability sucks – try to transfer your iTunes library to another computer.  I dare you.  Navigate through all the Apple support suggestions and hacks online.  Frankly unless you are Mac to Mac migrating, it is not easy for a healthy configured library.
  • Not informative – one of my biggest issues is that when I configure the library to be a mapped drive (let’s say M:), if M: is not available for some reason, iTunes decides on it’s own without telling me that it is going to switch the library back to the local volume/hard drive.  Any future action (i.e., iTunes purchasing, Amazon purchasing, etc.) now doesn’t save to my server library.  WTF?!  Can you at least tell me: Hey user, that location you set for your library, ‘M:’ is not available right now…what would you like us to do.  Stop moving it around for me.
  • Home Sharing – what is this supposed to be again?  I thought this would save me.  I could have at least one place that would be the library and home share to other clients who could then use this feature to sync.  Um, nope.  This is basically the sharing they already had except with a new name.  Worthless.

I wish the iTunes team would put in their lab 3 iPods and 4 computers with 2 users and a library stored on the server.  Work toward making your software work in that environment as seamless as it does with 1 user and I’ll be happy.  Until then I have to navigate your changes and try my best to explain to my wife why the music we bough on the desktop is not on her laptop until she adds it to the library that is already mapped to the network share where the music already exists.  Yeah, that’s what I though.

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In a recent Twitter conversation I was having with Peter Laudati, it reminded me of another problem I’ve been having with iTunes and wondering why it isn’t working this way. 

First, here’s my setup (and logic):

    • I have one server (Windows Server 2008) at my house that manages my backup, music, photos, etc. (no it is not a Windows Home Server (yet)).
    • I have a public share there with Everyone read/write priveleges called “music” and it is shared out an accessible.
    • In each client computer I have iTunes installed at, I change the Library location to the mapped drive which is pointing to the share indicated above.
    • All is well.
    • Whenever new music is added in a CLIENT machine, it is added to the server (because the library is pointing there) and added to only that local client’s iTunes library – this is the problem Peter and I were discussing, the fact that iTunes doesn’t “monitor” folders to update it’s Library – you have to help it understand by adding.  Royal suck. (FYI, Windows Media Player has been able to monitor folders for about 9 years now.)

So that’s the setup.  Any activity in iTunes now basically uses this server as the storage…this includes podcast subscriptions.  This is all fine.  Until I want iTunes to actually honor my settings.  Here’s what I’m talking about:

As you can see in this image above, my settings say to keep “all unplayed episodes” but also as you can see, episodes that are played (as indicated by the lack of blue dot) are still there.  I’ve refreshed, I’ve ran the “updated podcast” function on the feed(s), etc.  Nothing…all played episodes are persisted.

So, dear Apple fans/experts/geniuses, why is this?  Is this because my Library is a network share?  Can iTunes not handle the fact that it isn’t stored locally?  I will point out that if I manually delete them via iTunes, it does, in fact, delete – so it isn’t a permission thing.  I’d love to take this to the ‘Genius Bar’ but obviously with a dependency on my network share it won’t be of much help.

If anyone knows the solution to this or the problem with getting iTunes to manually update libraries by monitoring folders, I’m all ears.

Yes, I’m aware that Songbird, and others are out there, but they have yet to appeal to me in their other features.

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Ok, this is getting ridiculous.  First the removal of the ‘I Am Rich’ application (which whatever your thoughts on the app itself, it didn’t violate any rules, just that the powers that be at Apple didn’t like the pricing scheme), and now others are being prevented from joining the AppStore.  Here’s the latest two I’m aware of:

Podcaster

Podcaster is a native iPhone app developed by someone in the Apple developer program and not using anything that isn’t permitted in the terms and conditions of the SDK.  It provides the ability to search/add/download podcasts from your iPhone without having to have any software on a desktop sync for updated downloads.  The developer, Alex Sokirynsky, has let the world know of the reason his app was rejected by the AppStore:

“Since Podcaster assists in the distribution of podcasts, it duplicates the functionality of the Podcast section of iTunes.”

Actually it provides more functionality, Apple…is that your problem with it?  That users are able to add new podcast subscriptions from their iPhone and not wait to get to their iTunes sync machine because you don’t allow guest syncing from iTunes?  And so what if it duplicates the podcast section of iTunes?  This is an iPhone app, not an iTunes extension.

MailWrangler

The latest to get hit is MailWrangler, a native iPhone app that enables access to GMail accounts.  The developer submitted the app on July 17th and received a reply more than 30 days later indicating:

“…Your application duplicates the functionality of the built-in iPhone application Mail without providing sufficient differentiation or added functionality, which will lead to user confusion…”

There was also other feedback given to the developer, Angelo DiNardi, that seemed appropriate (no way of editing the account) to which he agrees and seems like open to fixing.

So the problem seems to be duplicity of features according to these two rejections.  Really?!  So all those calculator applications (currently over 30 doing a search on ‘calculator’) don’t duplicate the built-in calculator functionality?  What about the 10+ weather applications that seemingly provide the same features as the built-in Weather application?  What about the StockWatch app ($2.99) that provides what looks like identical functionality of the built-in Stocks application?

      

C’mon Apple, this is getting ridiculous.  Your are letting the likes of “DaysTo Christmas” in the AppStore ($0.99 by the way in case you can’t look at a calendar), but not allowing me to choose if I want to use a different mail app or download podcasts wirelessly?  This is getting absurd.

Are they violating the terms?  I don’t think so.  A look at the iPhone SDK Terms shows no restrictions on the types of applications that can be built (except for real-time route guidance/automation) only noting that applications “…may only use Published APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any unpublished or Private APIs.”  Neither of these applications do that!  It seems there is a conflict in the SDK Terms and the AppStore Terms…which I haven’t seen – anyone have a link to AppStore-specific terms that might indicate that no duplicate functionality can exist?  I’m guessing it isn’t there.

Apple – either enable alternate distribution channels for iPhone applications, or stop rejecting my choice as a consumer because it might be better functionality than you are providing.  Guess what, that’s what developers do – find ways to increase the value of the platform.  You shouldn’t have a developer program if you think people aren’t going to find ways to implement new functionality that may compete?  What gives Apple?  Why are you deciding what I can/can’t install when all other things being equal (i.e., not violating any terms of any SDK))?!  I can’t believe there is no developer outrage beyond these two developers. 

Apple is increasingly falling out of favor with the hi-tech crowds by doing things like this without explanation.  I only see this increasing.  Someone in Steve Jobs’ organization needs to get a wake-up call and start making some changes.  I think the easiest change for the AppStore would be to enable other distribution channels (and not just the beta-tester channel they finally opened up for app developers) so that anyone who has a native app built with the SDK can provide me, the user, the choice to decide what may “lead to user confusion” or what might be better functionality!

Wake up Apple…seriously.

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i'm writing this on the plane but i've just returned from 10 days in italy.  we visited venice, florence and rome.  i'm exhausted.  my feet are cursing me beyond belief and i felt like i walked 800 miles even though it was probably about 60.  i won't bore you with my slideshow, but share my thoughts on traveling abroad as an american used to certain technical amenities.

i will caveat with:

    • first trip to europe at all (fiji was my only other out of country experience)
    • i'm an american :-)

for this trip i thought i was going to experiment with technology abroad.  for this i brought:

my first problem was that i had the expectation that i'd be more 'connected' in italy.  bad expectation.  i had written this windows mobile application tapping into the built-in GPS of the device and plotting my points where we were walking - a bit of a 'where's waldo' for my trip so that friends/family could stalk follow us.  i had set up a facebook app and web site to use.  that turned out to be a complete bust.  here's my thoughts on some things.

internet access

as i mentioned, i thought i'd be more connected.  maybe we picked the wrong hotels (we didn't question any that our travel agent suggested which turned out to be a bad practice for two of them aside from internet access), but none of them had reliable (if any) access.  the first one in venice was just testing theirs out (they were kind enough not to charge us the €5 it cost for the day (that was the cheapest btw).  it sucked.  but they knew that too.  i think they were trying to share some connection with someone else and provide it as a service (at least that is what my poor translation resulted in).  we got it to work occasionally but it was VERY spotty.  what i learned was that the cities we were in (except rome) weren't really interested in being connected all too much.  it wasn't that much of a priority and fax was still king at the hotels.

the places where internet was available was expensive, like €10 for 15 minutes (roughly translated in US$ that is $15 at current exchange rates).  it was shocking really.  so my idea of having my GPS app didn't really work out at all. 

IMG_0745i also learned that because of that some other features i was planning on using my winmobile device for were useless, namely live maps and GPS integration.  i was thinking it would be awesome to get turn-by-turn instructions where we were.  the GPS worked great and centered our location each time.  the problem was the maps needed to be downloaded.  argh.  now this isn't a problem with windows mobile or live maps, but connectivity.  had i had my iphone (well, let's just say i wouldn't have been able to anyway with international data rates) i would have had the same problem in google maps...oh wait, iphone doesn't have GPS yet...nevermind :-).  you can see what it looked like on the image that is near this paragraph.  yeah, not helpful.  but if you do have a data plan or connective points, live maps on windows mobile rocks.

communication

we didn't bring our mobile phones.  no need.  we decided screw it, we're on vacation.  in hindsight it would have been nice to get some local pre-paid ones so that the six of us could communicate in italy when we got split up or were meeting for dinner, etc.  however, since communication with our families in the US, we wanted to make sure we had some method.

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i had brought one of my laptops for email (when we could because of connectivity), but also had loaded skype on my windows mobile device.  the problem with the wifi spots we encountered is that they weren't mobile friendly (most required a pop-up window for a timer).  because of this, that didn't work out that well.  i downloaded skype on my laptop and this was a phenominal experience.  we talked about an hour and a half total to our families and it cost about $1.88 for the entirety.  oh my gosh that is cool.  the quality was perfect, the other users didn't realize we were talking on a computer (and on the speaker phone nonetheless).  i had low expectations of skype -- but after using it, i'm going to be using it a lot more -- it was awesome, awesome, awesome.  way to go skype.

navigation

i already mentioned that my plan for gps-enabled navigation failed.  we did most of our vacation walking.  walking along streets that aren't on a grid system...or any other system for that matter.  we went old skool -- maps baby.  the maps given to us were quite good but in particular venice and florence had hundreds of little side streets and areas that could get you lost in a hurry.  one time we think we'd be heading in the right direction but were in fact going the opposite way.  this is were i assign mad prop #1 to the suunto d9.  i will first say that this is a dive watch first.  so the d9 is a bit overkill for the feature i'm talking about, but if you are a diver (and a geek), this is a must have.  search on ebays for good buys on it.  wireless pressure information baby, oh yeah.  anyway, back to the navigation.  the watch has an awesome built-in digital compass.  when we weren't sure where we were at, we popped over to the compass and got the exact reading and heading (not that headings were helpful on a paper tourist map, but it is just cool to say anyway).  having this compass reading was indispensable to us given we didn't speak the language.  i assume any compass would do (it was hard to keep our north point through all the streets and talking in between), but it wouldn't be as cool.  multiple time zones on the watch without having to reset my primary time was helpful as well.

photography

Fontina di Trevi (Florence)i love my camera.  i decided not to bring my digital SLR for a few reasons, but primarily i didn't want to carry something so large.  i also had sold some lenses in anticipation for better lenses but hadn't replaced them yet.  so i opted for my snapshot camera, the Canon SD850 IS.  this camera is awesome.  seriously, i want you to know how awesome this camera is for a snapshot.  it can't compare to full-blown digital SLR with quality glass and a spectrum of range, but for snapshots, it rules.  the digic processor is the same as the canon digital SLRs (up to a certain model) so the quality of a photo is great. 

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we took roughly 280 photos and most of them turned out great.  i did forget to bring a tripod, but managed to negotiate one down to €5 on the street for some night photos.  the street vendors nailed it, they were selling tripods and mini tripods like crazy.  italy is a beautiful site at night and all the sites (colleseum, vatican, bridges, etc.) and watching people try to take pictures with their flashes on their snapshot cameras was a bit comical.  i'm no pro, but i was able to help a family take a better picture in front of the trevi fountain (above) so that you could actually see their family -- their first shot used a flash and while the family looked great, but you couldn't see the fountain :-). 

having this camera was great and having the ability to do some short video clips as well helps in my overall vacation.  this was an essentially piece of technology (of course a camera is, but i mean on the level of features and quality that this provided).

entertainment

i didn't really do much entertaining outside of the flights, but in-flight i needed my portable media device.  my largest one is an iPod (80G) -- note: new zune wasn't out yet, and i haven't had a chance to review one myself, but looks promising -- and i loaded about 15 movies and two tv seasons (the office and lost season 1).  having these at my fingertips was essential to my sanity over the long flights.  i hadn't seen lost before and was able to watch the complete season 1 and i'm hooked (got to go rent the others now).  i laughed my butt off watching my favorite episodes of the the office as well.

one of the other cool things was our flight back from italy.  we were on a newer delta plane that was equipped with a new in-flight entertainment system that was awesome.  it was a touch screen system on the seat in front of me.  they've appeared to partner with dish satellite tv so we watched the sunday night football game on the way home if you wanted as well.  there were on-demand movies ($5), HBO shows ($2 each), and in-flight games that enabled you to play with others on the plane!  i particularly liked the MP3 feature enabling me to browse their list of "cds" and create my own playlist and then listen to it (good quality and good recent selections as well).  you can read about this change on the delta blog site.  it was a very positive user experience for me overall.  i'm not a delta flyer, but i was very happy as a geek to see this level of technology being implemented in-flight.  bravo.

i have a bunch of other opinions about italy and my trip, but they aren't technology related, so i won't bother you.  thanks to the fine italian folks for their hospitality (except for the hotel staff at all but one of our hotels...very rude and not service-focused) and patience with my butchering of the italian language.