Lately, I’ve been thinking about how far mobile devices have come. It used to be that mobile web browsers were effectively a joke, and mobile software wasn’t good for much but wasting time. However, in recent years tablets and phones have become more powerful than full-fledged desktop hardware of a few years before, with impressive software applications to match.
It used to be that, when it came to mobile productivity software, Windows was the only game in town. However, Apple has had strong reasons for boosting the iPad as a productivity tool—and Android hasn’t been so far behind.
Of course, as much money as the average iPad costs, it’s not a big surprise that it would be nearly as useful as one of the desktop or notebook machines with similar prices. But the thing that interests me is that it’s possible to get nearly the same degree of usefulness out of a sub-$100 Amazon Fire or Fire HD 8, which is now capable of running most Android apps that you can download from the Google Play Store.
Oh, a Fire isn’t going to be as good as an iPad at complex multimedia stuff, like music, photo, or video editing. But for the basic tasks—reading, writing, research—it could substitute for full-fledged desktops many times its price. This means it has the potential to bridge the digital divide in ways we might never have expected—not just for reading ebooks and assisting in education, but for more basic tasks. People with low or no incomes could search and apply for better jobs. Students could do homework and term papers on their tablet if their siblings or parents are using the desktop.
The possibilities are astounding, and I’m going to look at a few of them now. (Note that many of these things can be done just as well on full-fledged Android tablets or iPads, but given that those tend to be much more expensive I’m mainly concentrating on the Fire with its low-budget digital-divide-bridging potential. The $50 plain-vanilla-Android Nook Tablet 7 might be another good possibility, though it’s not available in the larger size of the Fire HD 8.)
We’ll start with the basics: getting text into the device. It used to be that you had to have a physical keyboard to enter text at any great speed. No matter how good a touch typist you might be, a mobile device screen would reduce everyone to one-letter-at-a-time hunt-and-peck.
But with the advances in phones and tablets have come advances in user interface as well. For one thing, cheap and good Bluetooth keyboards are now widely available. For only $18 or so, you can type comfortably into any tablet that will accept a Bluetooth hookup.
If you don’t have such a keyboard, or aren’t in a situation where you can easily use one, there are still better alternatives than one letter at a time. Swiping keyboards such as Swype or SwiftKey allow you to enter words by “drawing” them—swiping your finger from one letter to another to draw out what the word ought to look like. Even the basic Google Android keyboard allows swipe-typing now. (The basic keyboard on the Fire does not, but Swype is available even from the Amazon app store.) Swype also permits text entry via Dragon-powered dictation, another handy feature.
While these keyboards are capable of producing some hilarious autocorrect typos, they’re a lot faster than poking in one letter at a time. (I wrote the first few paragraphs of this post with Swype on my Fire HD 8 while riding the bus.) They could also allow tablet users to fill out forms or write resumes or letters when a desktop with a physical keyboard isn’t available.
There’s not really too much to say here; you’ve always been able to send and receive email from mobile devices. But using a good keyboard, or even a good swiping screen keyboard, means you can do it nearly as well as on the desktop. That can be important when it comes to applying for jobs. I can’t say I’m the most fond of the Fire’s email application, and Google’s standard applications don’t seem to work well with the Fire system. But it’s good enough for sending and receiving mail, at the least.
Next, let’s look at one of the basic building blocks of Internet activity: web browsing. It wasn’t so very long ago that phone browsers were so limited that it was common to make special “mobile-friendly” versions of web sites just for them, whose URLs frequently started with prefixes like “mobile.” or “m.” Even TeleRead had a mobile theme like that at one point, though it seems to have gone by the wayside in our new incarnation; m.teleread.org now redirects to the plain-vanilla TeleRead site.
But now, mobile web browsers are capable of showing you the web just as it appears to a full-fledged desktop site. Amazon’s Silk web browser is a fast, full-featured browser choice that provides an experience not meaningfully different from how a site looks on the desktop. If you download Google Chrome and connect it to your Google account, it will even remember your preferences, web history, and other data from your desktop to your mobile browsing experience—and if there is a difference, Chrome has a “Request desktop site” choice in its three-dot options menu.
(There are still a few sites that need a mobile version to get the most out of a tablet or phone, of course. For example, xkcd, which incorporates mouseover text into its comics, has a mobile version that lets people without recourse to a mouse see that text. Also, text-only news sites are making a comeback because they’re useful in disaster situations and for visually impaired readers, and services like Instapaper exist to turn cluttered news story pages into text-only versions. But for the most part, mobile browsers are fully capable of handling most full-fledged desktop sites now.)
So, if you need to apply for a job or government services via a web browser, you can do so just as easily on a $50 Fire as you could on a $500 desktop—especially thanks to the swiping keyboards mentioned above.
One fly in the ointment is that some web sites—especially government web sites—demand use of the Internet Explorer web browser, which is an impossibility on any Android tablet, let alone the Fire. On the desktop, it’s frequently possible to change the user-agent string one’s browser sends in order to pretend to be using another browser, such as Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to figure out a way to fake using Internet Explorer from a Fire tablet—though if anyone out there can let me know of such a way, I’ll be happy to update this article. Until then, it may be necessary to use the computers in one’s public library for those forms.
(Help may be on the way in the form of new preview versions of the Edge browser for Android and iOS that Microsoft just made available for testing; however, I don’t know whether websites that require IE will consider that Edge qualifies.)
Midway between web browsing and writing comes blogging—something that I am doing on my Fire right now, with Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, while enjoying a dunkels bock at a local brewpub. Needless to say, the process is fairly simple. There’s a decent Android WordPress app, but the web editor for WordPress works perfectly well too. (And I’ve encountered a few odd problems with the WordPress app when it comes to syncing changes written across multiple platforms—but the web editor always has the latest version.)
Android’s user interface does put a few obstacles in the way of blogging—in particular, copying and linking URLs is a bit of a complicated process, whereas on the desktop it’s a simple procedure. So, given my druthers, I usually do my typing on mobile, then go in and add links and such when I’m back at my desktop. But there’s no reason someone couldn’t do it all from a Fire; it would just be a little more awkward.
For good or ill, Microsoft Word’s document format has become something of a de facto standard for written document use on the Internet. In situations where you are permitted to upload a document (such as a cover letter or resume when applying for a job), Microsoft Word format is the coin of the realm. Fortunately, there are a number of options available to allow Android users to edit Word-format documents.
For starters, there’s Microsoft Word itself. I don’t know what brought Microsoft around to it, but it has made a fully-functional version of Word available for Android—at least on devices with a screen size of 10.1 inches or less. It does rely on having signed in with a Microsoft account to be able to edit documents, though, and a number of reviews on the Android app express user dissatisfaction with this.
Fortunately, there are alternative options available to edit Microsoft-compatible documents without having to hew to Microsoft’s restrictions. The Google Play store hosts a number of word processor and office programs, many of which can work with Word formats. For example, there’s an Android version of OpenOffice, called AndrOpen Office, which can save into Word-compatible format. It does have the drawback of being a mobile port of a desktop app, without much effort put into adapting the interface across, but it does work nonetheless. You may want to use a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse if you run this app, just to make using the interface easier.
(I actually use this app fairly often, but not for writing. When I need to do a text search on a document, I have to use AndrOpen Office; for whatever reason, none of the Android text viewers I know of incorporate text-search functionality.)
Another good option is Google Docs. Google Docs has a great mobile version for Android, available to the Fire once you’ve installed the Play Store. Not only is it capable of exporting in DOC or OPDF format, it saves its documents into Google Drive. It even has an offline mode so you can still write when you don’t have a net connection. If you have a Google account, this means that you don’t have to worry about how to print out any document you write there. Just go to any library or copy shop that can print from the Internet, log into your Google account, and print from there.
It does have the drawback that a few functions available to the desktop version aren’t available to the mobile version. The lack of in-document chat is annoying if you’re collaborating with other writers, but more importantly, the mobile version lacks any ability to set margins and indentation that I have been able to find. (This is fairly annoying if you want to have start-of-paragraph indentation in your document.) Nor does it let you change the font. However, you can still log into Google Docs via the Chrome app and request the desktop version of the site, then set indentation, margins, and font on a document that way. Once you go back to the document in the mobile app, it will respect the settings you made in the desktop version. Or you could write the document in the mobile app, then go in and format it in the desktop version.
One fairly annoying lack, as far as writing is concerned, is that there is as yet no Android version of Scrivener (though an iOS version does exist). However, there are ways to sync Scrivener with Android (using Jotterpad which you have to pay for) that might help.
If you’ve written something, it stands to reason that the next thing you will want to do is print it. Although I haven’t done much in that regard (due to not owning a printer myself), Google Cloud Print supports many makes and models of printer, and many printer manufacturers have also come up with their own Android apps to cover models Cloud Print doesn’t support.
However, all these apps do tend to assume that you own or at least have open access to a printer. It seems unlikely that someone using a Fire as their main computer would have a printer if they couldn’t afford a desktop. However, there are other options available to those people. For example, FedEx Office (nee Kinko’s) has a cloud printing Android app that lets you print and pay for jobs directly from your phone or tablet, then stop by the local FedEx Office to pick them up.
Another option would be the one I use: save your documents to Google Drive or some other cloud storage service, then log in and print them out from a library computer workstation. (You may need to bring a USB thumb drive with you, as some such workstations require downloading the doc to local storage before being able to open it.)
Here’s one you might not have thought of. And granted, it’s not really so much a “desktop” task as a landline or cellphone task. However, people on the wrong side of the digital divide might also have a hard time affording a phone and monthly service—which could be an obstacle when it comes to finding or landing a job. Well, the Fire can fill in in that regard as well.
All you need do is sign up for Google Voice, which provides you with a phone number from which you can take and make calls through the Google Voice interface or Hangouts—then install Hangouts and the Hangouts Dialer on the Fire. As long as you’ve got a WiFi connection, you can easily receive and make calls to regular phones that way, which could be very helpful when it comes to seeking employment if you don’t have any other way to be reached by phone. (Snagging a pair of earphones with an in-line mic can be useful in this respect—either a good pair from Amazon, or one of the el-cheapo ones you can find at any discount store.)
You can do the same thing if you use Google’s Project Fi, which takes over for Google Voice, though you have to be able to afford a multi-hundred-dollar smartphone to use that.
Yes, this one really should go without saying, given the nature of this site, but I’m not just talking about ebooks here. The Fire is a great device for reading, especially reading Kindle titles—and since you can now install Google Play, you can read ebooks from essentially anywhere with their Android applications. The bigger-screened HD 8 is especially good in this regard. And let’s not forget that ebooks can also be checked out from libraries!
But you can also read Internet news via Flipboard, the Google Android application‘s newsfeed, the built-in newsstand (and Washington Post app), and a passel of RSS readers (my current favorite is GrazeRSS, after Press stopped being updated). Your tablet can be your newspaper and magazine when it comes to keeping up on current events—and, for that matter, reading job search advice web sites.
Other Internet Media
This is something else that should effectively go without saying, given that the Fire is being marketed as a media tablet. But it is really really good at playing video and music, especially since it can add video and music services from Google Play that have never been available via Amazon’s store. In that way, it could fill in for the TV set someone can’t afford either.
Other Desktop Stuff
And then there are other things you can do on the desktop, such as educational software, photo editing, and so on that I haven’t ever had cause to get into, but for which I know the software exists. How good is it? Maybe not as good as what you could find on the desktop, but that it’s available on a device costing less than $100 is noteworthy nonetheless. I think the Fire has a great potential for use in schools—it makes a lot more financial sense to issue students a $50 Fire tablet than an $800 iPad, even if the iPad probably has better software overall.
In any case, for someone of low means who is sufficiently dedicated, a Fire could make access to services, job leads, and other information available in ways that would have required a desktop computer before. Instead of having to wait on library computer terminals that might be in use or unavailable when the library is closed, such a person could make use of their tablet at any time of the day or night as long as they can find free WiFi.
The Fire really is a remarkable device for what it represents: a bridge across the digital divide, a full-fledged Internet terminal nearly as capable as a desktop. It’s easily within reach of even the lowest-income families, makes a great introductory Internet device for children, and might even be useful to homeless people who want to find their way out of the shelter. I can hardly wait to see where these tablets go from here.