Every day for nearly a year now, I’ve used the same device and it’s not a phone. It’s my Amazon Kindle 2 (s amzn). Handsets have come and gone, but without fail, I read at least one chapter a day — usually many more — on the device. But there’s one thing I don’t do. I’m not browsing on the Kindle, which is a shame when you factor in the integrated mobile broadband connectivity. I’m paying $60 each month for the same type of connection for use with my netbooks, notebooks and other devices, but I can’t really take advantage of the free 3G pipe the Kindle offers. The browser is just too painful to use for more than a few minutes.
There’s hope for future improvements, though. Webmonkey reports that Amazon is advertising a developer role for its Labs126 group — the folks that develop the Kindle:
“The role at Lab126 includes designing new features for a new browser while supporting the existing code. Job requirements include familiarity with current web standards and web rendering engines, as well as experience with Java and embedded Linux, both of which the Kindle runs.”
It’s a safe bet that either someone at Amazon is going to build a better browser for its Kindle device or the company is planning for a revised or different device entirely. But browser code is only part of the equation here — two more pieces to the puzzle come into play and both limit the web capabilities of Amazon’s Kindle devices.
First there’s the e-Ink display. For reading basic content like text, it’s arguably quite good. There’s no way I’d be using my Kindle daily if it was difficult to read content. Pictures even look acceptable, although they’re limited by the 600 x 800 display resolution and 16 shades of gray. The bigger issue is the rate of refresh, or how long it take for the screen to render a full page of information. With basic text, like that in a book, it’s just fast enough but nowhere near as fast as hitting page down on a computer, for example. When dealing with web content, it can be an exercise in frustration due to the various content types on a single web page. That issue could be addressed with a beefier browser, but it’s always going to be a challenge — web complexities aren’t going away any time soon.
The other issue is also hardware related — the processor inside the Kindle itself. An iFixit teardown of the Kindle 2 reports that the CPU is Freescale’s MCIMX31 532 MHz ARM-11 processor — a chip that doesn’t include a graphics processor. It’s great for the primary features of an e-book device, but could struggle with today’s visual web. Pairing it with the eInk display isn’t likely to make for a positive web experience. Helping the Freescale CPU in the Kindle is a display controller from Epson, but again, these components driving a slowly refreshing display can only do so much. Put another way — a YouTube video looks smooth at 15 frames or more per second. Try that video on an eInk display measured in the opposite way — seconds per refresh — and it would look like a poor slide show.
Could a code-optimized browser bring a better web experience to Amazon’s Kindle? Sure it could. But will that experience compare to the various other tablets and slates that are due out this year? Not likely and that’s why a better browser would be nice on the Kindle, but it won’t make the device competitive against others that can do so much more. For e-book reading, it’s top notch — for anything more than basic slow browsing, it’s lacking. Given the hardware limitations, the browser can improve, but not enough to help Amazon fight the onslaught of new tablets this year.
Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):