A widely circulated story in Sunday's New York Times questioned whether or not Amazon's Kindle Fire would become, as the article's URL had it, "the Edsel of tablets." The Times story paints a picture of pervasive dissatisfaction with the Kindle Fire, of a nation disappointed by Amazon's first tablet, and of -- in the words of a hardware tear-down expert interviewed for the article -- "a useless device unless you're planning on putting books, a lot of books, on it."
The Times unloads a lot of conjecture, data cherry-picking and subjective rhetorical acrobatics here in an effort to paint the Kindle Fire as what it is quite certainly not: a bomb, a failure. The Kindle Fire is neither a bomb nor a failure precisely because there is no data -- as the article painfully demonstrates -- to suggest that either sales of the Kindle Fire have been disappointing or that Americans who have so far bought a Kindle Fire have, in fact, regretted or been meaningfully frustrated with their purchase in significant or aberrational numbers. Though it has received mixed professional reviews and would benefit from both hardware and software improvements, the Kindle Fire is a perfectly useful multimedia player with a simple media download system that a majority of users seem to be enjoying.
The unfair treatment given to the Kindle Fire starts at the beginning of the Times story:
The Kindle Fire, Amazon's heavily promoted tablet, is less than a blazing success with many of its early users. The most disgruntled are packing the device up and firing it back to the retailer.
It is true that, when people are dissatisfied with a product, they do pack it up and send it back to the retailer. The Times even found a photo of an angry-looking customer returning a Kindle Fire at Best Buy. What they did not get was any kind of consumer data, retailer estimate, or anecdote from a big box store manager about the volume of returned Kindle Fire tablets -- likely, one can only assume, because none of these things exist in persuasive numbers.
Also from the Times:
A few of [users'] many complaints: there is no external volume control. The off switch is easy to hit by accident. Web pages take a long time to load. There is no privacy on the device; a spouse or child who picks it up will instantly know everything you have been doing. The touch screen is frequently hesitant and sometimes downright balky.
You can create a litany of gripes with any device if you cherry-pick. Look, here are some complaints for the iPad 2, which almost everyone agrees is the best tablet on the market: There are no HDMI, USB or SD Card slots. It is impossible to view your content on a television screen unless you also buy an Apple TV or special cord. The cameras are mediocre, as is battery life with iOS 5 (which is also plagued by an unimpressive Notifications Center). Many users have complained about patchy Wi-Fi connectivity. Also, the most disgruntled users are packing the device up and firing it back to the retailer.
After citing the respected usability expert Jakob Nielsen's report that it is difficult to browse the web on the Kindle Fire -- a legitimate, but not holistically damning, complaint -- the Times comes up with this:
All this would be enough to send some products directly to the graveyard where the Apple Newton, the Edsel, New Coke and McDonald's Arch Deluxe languish. But as a range of retailers and tech firms could tell you, it would be foolish to underestimate Amazon.
Here's the difference between the Kindle Fire and the Apple Newton, Edsel, New Coke and Arch Deluxe: aales. Lots and lots of sales. Potentially record-breaking numbers of sales.
The Edsel sold a dismally low 84,000 models in its three years on car lots in the late 1950s; one estimate has Apple investing $1 billion in the Newton and recouping about $250 million in sales. Meanwhile, the Kindle Fire is on track to sell between three and five million units in its first three months (per the Times, which would easily make it the second best-selling tablet of all time, given that non-iPad tablet sales combined in the U.S. from January to October were 1.2 million). One analyst even has projected that Amazon will sell six million Fires, which, as John Paczkowski of All Things Digital notes, would "surpass the iPad's domestic sales in its first December quarter in 2010."
So why bring up the Arch Deluxe or the Apple Newton or the Edsel -- since none are apt comparisons -- if not just to smear the Kindle Fire by associating it with notable failures? And why doesn't the Times include the opinions of "retailers or tech firms" in an attempt to give a fair voice to supporters of the Kindle Fire (of which there are surely many)?
The retailer says the Kindle Fire is the most successful product it has ever introduced, a measure of enthusiasm that reveals nothing; it has not specified how many Fires it has sold, nor how many Kindles it has ever sold. It also says it is building even more Fires to meet the strong demand.
Most successful product launch ever, ramping up production in order to meet overwhelming demand -- how, exactly, is the Kindle Fire like the miserably-selling Edsel, which saw production slow-downs almost immediately due to cool demand? And why is the fact that Amazon does not release specific sales figures mean that its boast is "a measure of enthusiasm that reveals nothing," especially given that we know Amazon has sold millions and profited billions from its line of Kindles?
No, given that sales are obviously so robust, it must be that the Kindle Fire is getting pilloried by reviewers -- surely the Fire must be getting universally panned, to be receiving this death sentence from The New York Times?
Not so much. Here's the sole evidence of collective dissatisfaction with the Kindle Fire we are given:
Slightly more than a third of the 4,500 reviewers of the Fire on Amazon have given it mixed to negative reviews, three stars or fewer. Of Amazon reviewers of the iPad 2, 22 percent have given three stars or fewer; for the original Kindle, that number is 11 percent.
The fact that a fifth of reviewers gave the iPad 2 mixed to negative reviews should be clue enough that the Amazon star system is not the most reliable critical aggregation on the Internet; but saying that 33 percent of Amazon users gave the Kindle Fire a mixed or negative review is putting one's hand on the scale. I could just as easily have written about the terrific reviews that the Kindle Fire is getting on Amazon, with an average of 4 out of 5 stars, with almost two-thirds of reviews giving their new tablets a positive or perfect rating, and with nearly half of all reviewers awarding the Kindle Fire 5 out of 5. I might also point out that the Kindle Fire has received glowing reviews from respected tech sites like CNET, Engadget and PCMag.
The device does do one thing well, [Nielsen] said. Shopping on Amazon is a breeze. "If I were given to conspiracy theories, I'd say that Amazon deliberately designed a poor Web browsing user experience to keep Fire users from shopping on competing sites," Mr. Nielsen said.
Never mind that many reviewers saw the ease with which one could download music, movies and books on the Kindle Fire as a positive, but the story spins it as a negative to fit its point and ends on that note, apparently satisfied with having slapped around the Kindle Fire a final time.
The Kindle Fire may be a device with obvious defects -- so too was the original iPhone, and the original iPad, and the original Kindle -- but it is also one with a matching, if not overwhelming, number of obvious upsides, both for the millions who have already bought theirs (for $200 for a functional tablet with easy access to media!) and for Amazon -- financially and, as market research has shown, image-wise for the company.
The Kindle Fire is not the Edsel of tablets. A more likely candidate for that title is probably one that has already bombed financially and critically and been discontinued while costing its company millions of dollars, like the Dell Streak, for example. To attach that ignominy to the Kindle Fire without either statistical proof, genuine anecdotal evidence, or even an attempt at equal representation is unfair, misleading and a cruel disservice to consumers trying to educate themselves before choosing and purchasing a tablet.
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