Fire Away. Oh, it’s on.

KindlingThe Kindle Fire is awesome.

I went full-on nerd for this one, pre-ordering a month ago. (I didn’t go for the black belt and stake out the SFO FedEx office as some dudes did for the iPhone 4 release.) Amazon of course had one-button tracking via the UPS API, and a simple signup enable tracking via SMS.

Geektopia.

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Repeat after me: the Fire is not a $200 iPad.  Your first hint comes as you open the box—a plain brown cardboard box with a truncated corner.  Zip open the strip, and the Fire is nestled in a simple white cardboard cradle. A power cable is the only component, and the only documentation is a single sheet about the size of a baseball card. You are not stepping inside Apple’s peaceful Zen world of refined minimal design.

The black-on-black chassis is as minimal as it gets, with a rubberized plastic back panel, and just one button, the on/off switch. Sorry, Jony, but that’s a solid Fire win in the race to the least cluttered form factor. The initial boot was pretty fast—I’d say about 10-15 seconds at most.  But as soon as I signed it on to my WiFi network, it went into update/restart mode. I am all for continuous innovation, but it struck me as a little lame that it did not ship with the right code.

To my delight, it did ship with my Amazon.com account preloaded, so cover images of books that I had purchased on my Kindle for iPad app were right there. I think Amazon made the right call in leaving the downloading up to my choice, given that there is only 6.5 gigabytes of memory remaining after the (very anonymous) Android OS and handful of apps were installed. So Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, you’re in. Machiavelli’s The Prince, you’re out.  Edgar Allan Poe’s Complete Poetical Works, and Dickens’ Little Dorrit, you’re on the bubble.

The home page of the Fire is an image of two shelves.  The top shelf is a cover flow of books and running apps; the bottom is the Fire’s Fantastic Four of apps: IMDB, the movie information database owned by Amazon.com, Facebook (which looks like basically a direct to m.facebook.com), Pulse, a customizable website aggregator with a tiled interface (similar to Flipboard), and the Amazon.com store app. Interesting that web browsing and email, two apps that I almost always use on my iPad, didn’t make the cut. And it’s more than a little frustrating that I can’t easily customize the bottom shelf.

For the launch of Barnes & Noble’s Nook reader, CEO William Lynch attempted to deposition the Fire as an “Amazon vending machine”. To which I say: You say it like it’s a bad thing. I am already an Amazon Prime customer and I frequently rent movies on demand via a Roku player.  But I also use Netflix streaming and Hulu+, which were easy to find and download from the apps gallery.  It’s still the early innings, but I feel that I have a fairly robust selection of not only content but also the models to pay for them.

Hard core Outlook users are not going to love the email client, but to me it’s comparable to the iPad client and fine for a quick check for new messages. The keyboard has minor layout differences from the iPad, but I like the autocorrect much better. And the screen is excellent to my crappy eyes, but some reviewers have noted that it is not as sharp as the iPad’s.  If I do decide to tackle Little Dorrit on the Fire, I might regret not going for the cheaper and sharper low-end Kindle e-ink based reader.

But to this cloud fanatic, it’s the Silk browser and related technology that is really interesting. Apple and Oracle are currently the best examples of religious believers in tight integration of hardware and software; with the Fire, Amazon is pushing the virtues of tight integration of device and datacenter via Silk:

With Amazon Silk, most of the heavy-lifting is shifted from the processor on your device to our powerful AWS servers.  Access to such lightning fast CPUs, expansive memory, and huge network connections allows the performance of Amazon Silk to transcend the capabilities of your local device.  Amazon Silk isn’t just about massive computing power, however.  Because much of the intelligence of the browser is in the cloud, a number of performance enhancements become possible, including squeezing the utmost throughput out of your “last mile” connection, smart caching both on your device and on our servers, and on-the-fly content optimizations.  In addition, Amazon Silk has the ability to learn about traffic patterns on individual sites over time, allowing it to begin fetching the next page that users may wish to visit. (Kindle Fire FAQ)

Gulp, OK, they are storing my browser history. But the payoff is zippy performance. I spot-checked my most frequented sites, and popular ones like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were very fast. But my favorite new cloud app, a patient information center for UCSF took about five seconds to load.  Jeff Bezos breaks it down in a great interview with Wired’s Steve Levy:

Levy: You’ve leveraged Amazon Web Services by making use of it in your new Silk browser. Why?

Bezos: One of the things that makes mobile web browsing slow is the fact that the average website pulls content from 13 different places on the Internet. On a mobile device, even with a good Wi-Fi connection, each round trip is typically 100 milliseconds or more. Some of that can be done in parallel, but you typically have a whole bunch, as many as eight or more round trips that each take 100 milliseconds. That adds up. We’ve broken apart this process. If you can be clever enough to move the computation onto our cloud platform, you get these huge computational resources. Our cloud services are really fast. What takes 100 milliseconds on Wi-Fi takes less than 5 milliseconds on Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud. So by moving some of the computation onto that cloud, we can accelerate a lot of what makes mobile web browsing slow.

The promise of faster loads on widely-owned device makes the Fire a vending machine for Amazon’s AWS as well as digital content. That’s good news for Netflix, a big AWS customer.

The more I use my Fire, the more I like it. I’d love to see it make the leap to the enterprise in iPad’s footsteps, but given Amazon’s model (potentially including negative profit margins), that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. But who knows? A smart new generation cloud consulting company like Appirio could make a great argument to Amazon to sell a business-targeted Fire tuned to run a portfolio of apps. 

Flame on, Amazon.com, and thanks for proving that there is a tablet market, not just an iPad and a handful of wannabees. And when it comes time to considering the Kindle for business, please Fire Away.