Step 2 is the hard part.

Matt Ginzton writes here.

How Much Can the Kindle Fire Improve With Software Updates?

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I wrote a semi-positive mini-review of the Kindle Fire this morning.

Then I read Marco Arment’s rather scathing “human review”, and wondered: wait a minute, if it’s that bad, should I return it, and wait for a better version (or save my money if no better version materializes)?

The thing is, I saw most of the same things he did and had most of the same complaints; I just expect Amazon to fix them. Marco sees the glass half-empty; I see it half-full; maybe I’m too much of an optimist. I understand that it’s smarter to buy something for or judge something on its current capabilities, not ones that may or may not materialize in the future. Still, it seems worth considering how much better the current generation hardware might be able to get with software updates.

Most of the complaints centered around speed and touch interaction. And those are legitimate — lots of taps are ignored; lots of taps are interpreted as small drags from nowhere to nowhere; scrolling is chunky and jerky; it’s at best annoying and far from a premium experience. For goodness sake, the orange pointed stripe that you drag to unlock the device, every time you want to wake it from sleep, doesn’t drag smoothly — it’s the first thing you see; how hard is it to get that right? Still, if Amazon cares — and I hope they do — they should be able to fix this.

So will they (fix it)? What’s the problem here, anyway? The hardware should be up to the taskTI OMAP 4430 SOC with two gigahertz CPU cores on Cortex A9 architecture and PowerVR SGX540 GPU, 512MB of RAM. That compares favorably with this year’s Apple devices based on the A5 SOC (iPad 2, iPhone 4S: two comparable CPU cores and a somewhat newer GPU core) and very favorably with last year’s Apple devices based on the A4 SOC (iPhone 4 and 4th-generation iPod Touch: one comparable CPU core and a somewhat older GPU core). I heard that specs are dead, but at least this establishes a baseline. And note that at the Kindle Fire’s 1024x600 screen resolution, it’s pushing the exact same number of pixels as the 960x640 retina display in the iPhone 4 and 4S. So assuming they can figure out how to effectively leverage the CPUs and GPU — I don’t know how good Android is at this, and I don’t know what shortcuts Amazon took in forking Android, and so on — you’d think they should be able to get iPhone 4S-like performance out of this. At the very least they should be able to compete with the 4th-generation iPod Touch (which is a year old and the same price). The point is that Amazon and Apple (and everyone else too) are using similar guts, with similar- architecture ARM CPU cores and PowerVR GPU cores. Right now, the iPod Touch is night and day more responsive. Amazon, get cracking.

(I’ve owned the previous 2 generations of e-ink Kindle and Amazon delivered significant software updates to these long after purchase; that gives me reason to be hopeful the same applies to the Kindle Fire.)

Some of the complaints were about missing physical buttons — hardware volume buttons would be nice, a dedicated home button would be nice, and there’s no way to fix those problems in software. (The headphone complaints are also legitimate; the headphone jack location is obviously not patchable in software; the popping might be; however I don’t really care, because the iPod has so won the music race that I don’t have any desire to use the Kindle Fire for music. I do find it notable that pretty much every non-Apple multifunction device that can play music takes it so unseriously that they have popping problems like this; that’s par for the course with old and new Palm smartphones too… oh well.)

What this boils down to is this: if Amazon can wring decent performance out of the hardware, and pay some real attention to nitpicky details about the touch interaction, about half of Marco’s (and my) complaints should go away. I see no reason this is impossible to fix with the current hardware. However, if they also decide to yield to common sense and add hardware home and volume buttons, the first-generation units will forever feel lacking by comparison.

I’ll close with a final note on why I’m willing to give the Kindle Fire some slack. I’m not trying to compare the Kindle Fire and iPad or argue the Kindle Fire kills or replaces anything else, much less the iPad. But I do think the Kindle Fire has the right guts to deliver a much better experience than it does today, and is fixable in software if Amazon has the will to improve it. I’m also intrigued that there’s finally an Android competitor to the iPod Touch — decent hardware sold contract-free and unsubsidized for an honest $200. (Incidentally, that’s something John Gruber called out for before.) The big difference between the Kindle Fire and the iPod Touch, other than the operating system (and the responsiveness and app ecosystem that put Apple way ahead on the software side) is obviously the size; I’m not going to get into the screen size argument, other than to point out that anything that doesn’t fit in a pocket is clearly less portable than anything that does, and that size imposes so many tradeoffs there’s no one perfect size. Pick the one that works for you.

Given that the $200 Android-based iPod Touch competitor now exists, I’m interested to see what happens with the app ecosystem. I think it could be a big gaming success, the way the iPod Touch has been, for example.

If Amazon can endow it with a major dose of missing snappiness, that is.