Note: There’s updated information in the comments section to this post.
Amazon.com earlier this week announced four additional items in its Kindle line of ebook readers.
One caveat for potential consumers, and for software developers: The new flagship Kindle device, named Fire, has no microphone.
The Fire is, of course, more than an ebook reader. While the three other newly announced Kindles (Kindle, Kindle Touch, Kindle Touch 3G) build on the line’s next-generation e-ink technology, the Fire is a tablet computer with a multi-touch color screen. The Kindle Fire is powered by a modified branch of Google’s Android operating system. Other non-Apple tablets and ebook readers are built on Android, and several have been targets of the affections and aspirations of hackers. The Nook, a product of Barnes & Noble, has likely been the most popular ereader for after-market tinkerers. Reports that Amazon will not aggressively derail those who seek to root the new Kindles (i.e., take control of the operating system; see liliputing.com) suggest that the Fire may soon rival the Nook in that regard.
The absence of a microphone, however, has unfortunate potential ramifications, especially if the Fire becomes a top-ranking Android device. For one thing, the popularity of microphone-enabled software will likely suffer — ranging from interactive sound applications like RJDJ (which takes sound in realtime from the microphone and makes new, musical sound out of it) to utilities like Shazam (which identifies songs based on them being “heard” via the microphone). Voice activation overall may be de-prioritized, should Fire gain significant market penetration. Companies may be less likely to innovate with such microphone-sensitive options as the Three Little Pigs children’s book app that makes good on the promise of blowing the house down, or the way the Clif Bar SOS iPhone app fogs up when you breathe into the microphone. Soundcloud.com’s Android app has a record function — will it need to devise an alternate version for deaf devices like the Fire? (Note: not all of these apps mentioned above are available for the Android operating system. They are simply mentioned as illustrations of the range of microphone-sensitive developement.)
The absence of the microphone emphasizes the Fire’s Kindle heritage: it is depicted as a device for consumption, not production. This is why the initial promotional materials for the Fire refer to how you, the Fire user, can “Read Your Documents” (rather than edit or create documents). The key concern is that consumption and production are not mutually exclusive; they are, in fact, two distant ends of a broad and gradated continuum. The apps mentioned above are in several cases examples where microphone use is part of the consumption.
In addition, the absence of the microphone nixes one of the staple utilities of mobile devices: the ability to take voice notes, which is arguably a better user experience when reading an ebook (or web page) than is momentarily switching one’s position in order to type notes.
The microphone is not the only immediately evident technology lacking in the Fire. Also missing are 3G support, and a camera. These absences have been explained collectively as means by which Amazon reached the Fire sale price of $199, which has been widely viewed as competitive (in response to the Amazon release announcement, Barnes & Noble for one day dropped the price of its Nook Color to $150 from $250; via mobilewhack.com). The absences also make for a certain amount of planned obsolescence, providing a simple path for Amazon to the Kindle Fire 2.0, which could add one or more of the missing features, much as cameras were added when the iPad 2 was introduced.
Certainly Android’s preeminence as a mobile-phone technology means that the operating system is, for the foreseeable future, linked to devices with microphones, but the absence of a microphone on the Kindle Fire is an unfortunate development.
More on the Kindle Fire at amazon.com.
And for reference, here are my thoughts on the iPad, a few days after its January 2010 announcement: “Avoiding iPad Bloat.”