I've never been a big Kindle advocate in education. The lack of color and interactivity prevented it from ever being the tool of choice for textbooks that many initially hoped it would be. Amazon even had an ill-fated large-format Kindle DX that it marketed largely in the education space. Kindle apps on mobile devices and the web were definitely on the right track because the potential was there for next-gen electronic textbooks on converged devices that would resonate with students.
The much-anticipated, Android-based Kindle Fire, however, is finally the tablet for 1:1 use in schools. The price is clearly spot on. $199 is far easier to stomach for schools than anything else on the market, it's a full Android tablet (there's that convergence I was talking about), its 7" form factor means that it fits in any bag easily and small hands can hold it just as easily as high school- and college-sized hands, and, most importantly, the new Silk browser that Amazon introduced today has the potential to deliver an entirely new generation of web-based tablet applications.
Sure, the 7" form factor makes content creation a little tougher. This has been Intel's very valid reason for holding back on a true tablet and using their convertible netbooks to give students built-in access to a keyboard. Virtual keyboards on 7" screens don't exactly invite touch typing. They do invite touch, though, making visual content creation (especially with a dual-core processor like the ones featured on the Fire or Dell's Streak) an inviting prospect. Portability, though, at 7", is the key. These can move with students for field studies, micromobility, and truly ubiquitous access to the Internet at a price almost too cheap to pass up. Have you ever seen a 7-year old holding an iPad 2? It's a little scary.
It isn't so much the tablet that has me excited. The price is exciting, but the hardware is nothing new. Speedy tablets are now fairly commonplace. What really has me excited is the Silk browser that Amazon also announced this morning. Essentially, the Fire stays connected to Amazon's EC2 cloud computing infrastructure all the time:
Amazon EC2 is always connected to the backbone of the Internet where round-trip latency is 5 milliseconds or less to most web sites rather than the 100 milliseconds that’s typical over wireless connections. AWS also has peering relationships with major internet service providers, and many top sites are hosted on EC2. This means that many web requests will never leave the extended infrastructure of AWS, reducing transit times to only a few milliseconds.
And there's the rub. My own company hosts its virtual classroom application on EC2. So do countless other SaaS providers in the education space and beyond. Imagine the sorts of integrations and rich applications that can be delivered right to the Fire in ways that can't happen with other browsers. Here's a video from Amazon explaining how Silk works:
The traffic optimizations will also allow schools deploying hundreds of these devices to give students great performance on their Fires without drastic increases in bandwidth and infrastructure. Thus, when software companies want to deliver incredibly rich applications to a mobile browser (many of which would choke on most mobile devices now, requiring Apps for a decent experience), a partnership with Amazon means a high-speed, optimized experience right in the Fire's browser.
This sort of extended application beyond snappy web browsing hasn't been announced yet, but it's only a matter of time before, for example, a major publishing company sells textbooks through Amazon for use on the Fire and hooks in powerful interactive web applications for assessment, tutoring, or simulations, all on a little 7" device that fits in any students backback. As Amazon points out, the computing power of EC2 is nearly limitless, so what can it do to deliver previously impossible applications to a tablet (or to 900 tablets in a school)?
What could an LMS look like without bandwidth considerations or compatibility issues on a mobile browser? What about data aggregation and analysis from student assessments administered on Kindle fires, available in real time to instructors? Student collaboration applications? I can think of more than a few ways that partnerships between e-learning companies and Amazon could make for revolutionary uses of tablets in schools that just wouldn't be practical on any other tablet (or, for that matter, on a desktop browser)?
And, in case anyone hasn't noticed, Amazon has a pretty strong distribution channel. There is a new business model here for educational software companies and both cost savings and highly disruptive tools to be had for schools. I pre-ordered my Fire today. Talk back below and let your imaginations run wild: What novel applications would you like to see that EC2, the Fire, and its new browser might make possible?