Fire Sale

The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon will be releasing a $50 tablet “in time for the holidays”.

Multiple tech sites are picking up on the story and asking the question “Would you buy a $50 tablet?” I think that’s the wrong question. The right question is “Would you buy a $50 tablet from Amazon?”

Let’s talk about that a bit.

This is Amazon, the company that is perfectly willing to take a loss on hardware because they know they can make up for it in software. In the case of tablets, that “software” isn’t apps, it’s books, movies, and music. As best I can tell (keeping in mind that I don’t own an Amazon device), each new version of their customized version of Android makes it just a little harder to bring your own media in from outside the Amazon ecosystem. I don’t see the version they ship on this new tablet being any exception to that rule.

Then there’s the tablet itself. The WSJ says it’s going to have a six-inch screen. That’s phablet territory, and a size that manufacturers have concluded doesn’t work for tablets. Heck, it’s getting harder and harder to find seven-inch tablets (my preferred size) outside the bargain bin. That aside, the media experience on a six-inch screen isn’t great. Music is OK–as millions of iPod users will tell you, a screen isn’t really necessary for a purely-audio experience–but video is iffy. Even on a seven-inch screen, video is eye-squintingly small; as best I can tell from forum comments, video is the main driver in making phablets ever-larger. As for books, for all but those with excellent vision, a six-inch screen will mean either tiny print, or frequent page turns. Neither is a desirable user experience.

So would you buy a $50 tablet strictly for audio? Would it change your opinion if you knew that it only had a single monophonic speaker? Mono isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for an audio device–witness the popularity of Sonos’ Play:One and Play:Three devices, both of which are monophonic. But the Sonos gadgets have much higher-quality speakers than anything that could fit in a tablet, even one selling for significantly more than $50, and they also offer the option of pairing two speakers for stereo. It seems unlikely that Amazon’s cheapie tablet would have a similar pairing capability.

One possibility would be that Amazon will position the tablet not so much for its own multimedia capabilities, but more as a glorified remote control for the Fire TV set-top box. But if you don’t already have a Fire TV, that’s another $40 on top of the $50 for the tablet. $90 is squarely in the same range as a Roku box or even an Apple TV–and Apple is expected to announce a new, more powerful version of the Apple TV tomorrow.

I don’t really see a market for Amazon’s little Fire tablet. Unless they have something really spectacular up their sleeve–and, based on the damp thud their Fire Phone made when it hit last year, I don’t think they do–I think the $50 tablet is going to be more of a wet match than a blowtorch when it comes to igniting sales.

Change You Won’t See

It’s that time of year when blogger’s thoughts turn to change. Seems like everyone is talking about it. Change for the better, change for the worse. Far be it for me to neglect a tidal wave of interest. But naturally, I have to put my own cynical spin on it.

Herewith, my top five list of things that need to change in 2015, but won’t.

5. BART’s mañana attitude. Not just waiting until the last minute and beyond to negotiate with the unions–really, guys, it’s not too early to start working on the 2017 contract, honest–but in general. Cars are increasingly overcrowded; by the time the new cars with more space are delivered in 2016 and 2017, they’ll be packed just as tight as the old cars are now. And yet, we keep hearing that BART can’t start thinking about increasing capacity until after the cars are delivered.

4. Caltrans’ “It doesn’t need to be tested” attitude. Do I even need to elaborate on this? It’s not just the Bay Bridge: everything we’re hearing suggests that Caltrans needs to make a significant change in its corporate culture. Consider future needs. Don’t take it for granted that construction has been done to standard. Recognize that budgets are not infinitely flexible.

3. Government’s belief that citizens have no right to privacy. Did you notice that the NSA chose Christmas Eve to release a pile of audit reports, hoping that nobody would pay attention? Bloomberg’s report makes it obvious that nobody is exercising any control over the NSA. If there are no processes–or software controls–in place to prevent analysts from conducting surveillance without authorization, it means the organization is relying on self-policing. And if an analyst can accidentally submit a request for surveillance on himself, it’s a pretty good sign that self-policing isn’t working. And yet, the NSA wants more access to record and monitor everything that everyone does. Oh, and let’s not forget the FBI, which continues to claim that North Korea is reponsible for the Sony hack, despite significant evidence that the crackers were Russians, possibly assisted by an employee or ex-employee.

2.5 The increasing militarization of local police. As long as police departments are free to buy new and increasingly lethal toys, no one will be able to make any progress in decreasing the fear and distrust between police and the general public. Drone flights won’t make the public feel safer, and the increased resentment will easily flash over into more threats against the police. And body cameras are not and will never be the answer. They’re too easily forgotten, damaged, misinterpreted, or outright ignored.

2. The endless waffling and squabbling by MLB and the As. Just make a decision, people. Yes, is a literal cesspool, but the As aren’t going to make any effort to improve the situation while the possibility exists that they could skip town. The costs of San Jose’s lawsuit are increasing, and MLB’s anti-trust exemption–already cracked by recent court decisions on the NFL’s blackout rules–is at risk. Regardless of your opinion of the exemption as a whole, having it revoked or struck down would open the door to levels of team movements that haven’t been seen since the 1890s. MLB needs to–ahem–shit or get off the pot before someone yanks the pot out from under them.

1. Phones getting bigger. Remember how bad the RSI epidemic was before we started to figure out how hard on the wrists sitting and typing all day was? I’m increasingly of the opinion that we’re treading the same path here. People are holding larger, heavier phones all the time. Bluetooth headsets aren’t a cure: you still need to hold your phone to play games, watch videos, and read and write all but the simplest e-mails. I fully expect 2015 to be the year of the sprained wrist, as Android phone-makers rush out models to increase their size lead over Apple. 2016 will be even worse when Apple catches up with an iPhone 7 that–projecting the trend–will require a personal crane to lift. Not that all of the blame can be assigned to device manufacturers. Several studies that I just made up indicate that all of the screen protectors, fancy cases, and assorted bling that consumers slather on their phones increase the weight by at least twenty-five percent.

0. Happy New Year!