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Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Amazon Looks to Burn Out Apple's Roots

Has it been so long that we've forgotten how Apple managed to maintain a foothold in the computing market at a time when the Microsoft/Intel duopoly was virtually universal? It was schools. Before aluminum unibody iBooks and even berry-colored iMacs, Apple has always made sure that it had mindshare in the education market. One could argue that it was this precedent that set the stage for today's shift to adopting iPads in modern classrooms.

Not the average classroom, of course. Not in districts like mine suffering from a $22 million budget shortfall. But in some universities and private/independent schools and, OK, maybe some fortunate public K-12s, teachers are looking to embrace the future and get their kids ahead of the curve. You're even starting to see education courses appear on how to use iPads in the classroom.

Why aren't all schools hopping on the iPad wagon? No doubt, there are many reasons, ranging from IT management concerns to outright pigheaded technophobia. But one of the top inhibitions has to be the $750 average price per device I wrote about earlier this year. When districts have to start implementing "budget closure days" in order to balance their bottom lines, who has $750 for every student to get a new tablet? There are roughly 55 million American elementary and secondary school students. Figure in a small group discount, and that's about $40 billion in iPads.

But along comes the 7-inch, Android-based Kindle Fire at $199. Suddenly, our budget to outfit every first through 12th grader drops to $11 billion. For reference, this is about the going rate for one month of U.S. war in Afghanistan and only slightly more than the bonus pay received by JP Morgan investment bankers in 2010.

So does it seem feasible that we as a country that still allegedly values its future could find a way to give our students each a tablet? I'd like to think so. If that sounds too entitled or socialist, fine. For $199 a pop, I'd find a way to come up with the money for each of my two boys. All I need to see is that the apps and content are there to make it worthwhile. (And sure, having teachers and administrators with a clue how to make use of current technology would be a great bonus.)

This brings us to the root of my point: I have yet to see anyone in the press discuss the Amazon Kindle Fire as an educational device in the same way that the iPad is now being touted, but in this regard I really think Amazon may have an iPad killer in the works. Do students need a camera or 3G wireless connectivity in a tablet? No. Those who want such things already have them in their phones. Do kids really need the bigger screen for virtual keyboard typing? No. You can create notes on a screen well enough, but serious content creation still demands a mouse, keyboard, and more pixels than you're going to cram into even 10 inches. And as someone who owns both a 10" Android tablet and a 7" NOOK Color, I can vouch for the fact that a 7" form factor is far more convenient. All it took was one business trip with both devices, and the 10" has stayed home ever since.

Yes, the Kindle Fire is being sold at a few bucks under Amazon's manufacturing cost in order to hit that tantalizing $199 price point, because Amazon knows it will make up the money on content purchases made through the device. But check out Amazon's Android app store, which I find far preferable to the chaos of the conventional Android Marketplace. I'll wager that the 1,125 educational titles now listed in Amazon's store will grow by several times over the next year. Amazon already has a full-blown textbook division, complete with a Kindle-based rental sub-site. And does it matter that the Kindle Fire doesn't have expandable storage when all of your purchases can be stored on and streamed from Amazon's Cloud Drive for free?

The only drawback I see here is that slowly yet surely, those who ride the Amazon education train will become locked into Amazon's platform. The other day, I picked up my old high school American History textbook to check a fact. In 25 years, if my kids want to do this, they might have to be paying to make sure they can still access their Amazon digital content. This rankles, but I also think it's inevitable as the world gradually, increasingly makes premium content, including books, into a subscription service. Whether you pay Amazon or Apple or Microsoft or whatever other mega-providers emerge in the future, you're going to pay someone as sure as you pay the utility companies today. But I digress.

I want my kids, and all kids, to have a tablet as part of their everyday learning and curriculum. Google was unable to take the wind from Apple's sails in this regard because it didn't have any control over the hardware ecosystem. Amazon has now remedied that problem, and in the Kindle Fire the company has an entry device into a complete content infrastructure that's tailor-made for student and educator needs. All that's left is to see the software developers leap in with the same creativity that they've shown on the iPad. Here's to hoping that Amazon will encourage them in this pursuit and recognize the educational gold mine now within its reach.

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