Using Amazon Kindle Fire HDX Tablets in the Enterprise

When you think of business tablets, chances are Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX tablets don't come immediately to mind. Though not perfect, the Kindle Fire HDX tablets are actually well suited for business use, particularly BYOD, according to CIO.com's Al Sacco.

A couple of months ago, Amazon sent me its (then) new Kindle Fire HDX 8.9" tablet for review. After spending some time with the device, I wrote a piece comparing its strengths to the most popular tablet available today: Apple's iPad.

Kindle Fire HDX 7 in Briefcase

I did not evaluate, or even address, the tablet's enterprise-related features; the Kindle Fire HDX seemed like a consumer-oriented device designed first and foremost for media consumption. It is, in fact, a device designed for media consumption -- more specifically, consumption of Amazon.com digital media. The same can be said about that tablet's little brother, the Kindle Fire HDX 7" -- which Amazon sent me last week with the specific request that I examine its enterprise features.

I admit that I did not think of the Kindle Fire tablets as enterprise devices. In fact, Android tablets in general aren't particularly popular in corporate environments. MDM provider Good Technology recently found that Apple iPads made up 91.4 percent of all its customer activations in 2013, while Android represented just 8.6 percent of tablets activated.

That said, the Kindle Fire HDX 7" tablet is actually well suited for enterprise use, thanks to some features Amazon started rolling out last fall and a new software update released at the end of February -- with a few caveats.

Here's some enterprise perspective, based on my experience during the past week, putting Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX 7" through the paces of a typical business user -- and with IT implications in mind. (Note: I'm writing specifically about the Kindle Fire HDX 7" running Fire OS 3.2, but the majority of my observations also apply to the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9".)

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX Pros for Business Users

My favorite thing about the Kindle Fire HDX 7" is it shape and size: 7.3 inches tall, 5.0 inches wide, and 0.35 inches thick. The tablet I use most often is Google's Nexus 7 (2013) Android tablet, which has a nearly identical display size, but is more than 10mm taller and just a bit thicker. The Kindle Fire HDX 7" (Wi-Fi only) is almost 40g lighter than the Nexus 7 (Wi-Fi). Compared to Apple's Wi-Fi-only iPad mini, the Kindle Fire HDX 7" is also nearly 30g lighter. I much prefer smaller 7-inch tablets to larger models, and the smaller Amazon tablet is extremely portable, and very light, both of which business travelers will appreciate.

The Kindle Fire OS makes it simple to set up all of your email accounts. I set up my Gmail and my corporate Exchange mail in a matter of minutes with just my user names and passwords, as well as an Exchange server Web address for my work mail, calendar and contacts.

I paired my Apple Wireless Keyboard to the Kindle Fire HDX via Bluetooth with no issues, and it worked as expected. Amazon also offers a portable Bluetooth keyboard and case from Belkin ($80) that's designed specifically for the Fire HDX 7", but I didn't use that gadget. Amazon's cool Origami cases can be used a stands along with separate Bluetooth keyboards, as well.

Amazon Kindle Fire in Businessman's Hands

The tablet supports wireless printing. I easily printed an email message to a compatible HP printer in my office after installing the necessary tablet plugin from the Amazon App Store. I was only able to print from certain apps, though.

A "Send to Kindle" feature makes it simple to send documents to your Kindle library by attaching them to email messages, which you can send to a Kindle-specific email address. You can add approved senders, so collaborators can also add documents to your library. A Send-to-Kindle browser extension, a desktop client and an Android app can also be used to send documents to your library.

The Kindle Fire HDX's large, 4550mAh battery pack should provide more than 11 hours of heavy use, according to Amazon. In comparison, Google's Nexus 7 has a slightly smaller 4,325mAh battery, and Apple says its iPad mini with Retina display gets "up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music."

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX Pros for IT Departments

As stated, it's very easy to connect new Kindle Fire HDX users to corporate Exchange Servers via ActiveSync. The latest version of the Kindle Fire OS (13.3.2.1_user_321093620), released during the last week of February, added software-based, on-device data encryption. (Amazon PR told me "hardware encryption will come at a later date.")

The Kindle Fire OS also supports security features from five leading MDM services (AirWatch, MaaS360, Citrix, Good Technology and SOTI), with APIs for network configuration, device security, app management, device-feature control and device inventory, according to Amazon. (It's worth noting, however, that a recent AirWatch update apparently caused issues for Kindle Fire users.)

Additional Kindle Fire security features include a native VPN client, support for single sign-on in the Amazon Silk browser; and a native Simple Certificate Enrollment Protocol (SCEP) client that provides secure access to corporate systems.

The Kindle Fire HDX 7" tablet costs significantly less than Apple's popular iPad mini with Retina display. For example, the 16GB Kindle Fire HDX 7" (Wi-Fi only, with lock-screen offers and promotions) costs $229.00, while the 16GB iPad mini with Retina display starts at $399.00. (The 16GB Google Nexus 7 [2013, Wi-Fi only] sells for the same price as the 16GB Fire HDX 7".) Amazon also makes it easy to order Kindles in bulk online, and you can send the devices to as many as 10 different locations per order.

Amazon's free "Mayday" live tech support is truly unique, as it lets Kindle Fire tablet users connect with technicians in real-time. Technicians appear in a small video window that can be moved around the user's display. The techs can't see the user, only their devices. Amazon says they can answer just about any Kindle-Fire-related question you might have.

I contacted Mayday briefly to see how quickly I'd get a support rep and how knowledgeable she'd seem. I was honestly impressed; the rep appeared almost immediately and answered every question I had accurately and with a smile. The Mayday feature could be particularly helpful for SMBs that don't have their own dedicated IT teams or want to minimize support costs.

Finally, Kindle Fire administrators can use Amazon's "Whispercast" service to set up new devices, send network and security settings and provide apps and content to groups of Kindles, among other things. Whispercast is a sort of slimmed-down, free MDM option that could be great for certain types of organizations that don't need or can't afford full MDM services.

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX Cons for Business Users and IT

There's a lot of upside to using Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX 7" tablets in the enterprise, but it isn't perfect for business. Here are a few reasons why.

I use a lot of different tablets and smartphones, and I'm a big fan of Google's Android OS. So the first thing I tried to do when I received the Kindle Fire HDX 7" was download my favorite Android apps. It quickly became clear that Amazon's App Store is severely limited when compared to Google's Play Android store.

For example, Google's Android apps, which are some of the best Android apps available, aren't in the Amazon App Store. No native Gmail. No Maps. No Google+. No Hangouts. No Chromecast. No Cloud Print. Tons of great Android apps are absent from Amazon's App Store, too, including many of the most popular business and productivity apps.

Amazon blocks installation of Google Play. Kindle Fire HDX tablets can be "rooted," and the Play Store can be installed, but that's not something IT wants to deal with. The best thing about Android is its ecosystem and vast app catalogue -- and Amazon has limited its tablets' value by restricting Android. It's hard to move from any Android device to a Kindle Fire HDX tablet and not feel disappointed that you can't use many of your favorite apps.

The Kindle Fire OS also limits your Android customization options. You can't use Android widgets -- one of my favorite things about the OS. You can't choose any third-party keyboard you might want. You can't even use your own custom home-screen wallpaper.

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7

The native email, calendar and contacts apps are all relatively intuitive, though they aren't quite as visually appealing as their counterparts in newer versions of Android and iOS 7. They also aren't as full-featured as the email app in Android 4.4, the latest version of Android, which again spotlights the downside of the customized Fire OS "flavor" or Google's mobile OS.

The Office suite that comes with the Kindle Fire HDX 7" is aptly called "OfficeSuite." It's a decent alternative to popular Android Office apps such as QuickOffice -- but you have to purchase the premium version for $14.99 if you want access to all of program's features, including document editing. There are some free options in the Amazon App Store, but I didn't find any worth recommending.

You can also easily mirror your Kindle Fire screen to Miracast-compatible displays and TVs, which could be helpful for presentations or during meetings. The Miracast option isn't ideal, though, because you either need a Miracast-ready TV/display or Miracast dongle. The Kindle Fire HD tablet had a micro-HDMI-out port, and while that option wasn't wireless, it did let you mirror you screen to any display with an HDMI port. An HDMI out port is more practical in most cases and would therefore be more valuable than Miracast support for many business users.

The 4G cellular version of the Kindle Fire HDX 7" is only available for Verizon and AT&T's network. So it is not currently a viable options for T-Mobile or Sprint customers.

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX in the Enterprise: Conclusion

After spending the past week with the Kindle Fire HDX, and using it as my main work (and personal) tablet, I feel comfortable saying it is indeed a suitable business tablet. There are some things that bother me, but certain types of organizations will find Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX 7" perfectly suitable.

Of course, if your organization is invested in an MDM service that doesn't fully support the Fire OS, Amazon's tablets may not be an option. But seamless compatibility with Exchange ActiveSync goes a long way to making it simple to connect and manage Kindle Fire HDX tablets, even if it only gives you access to Exchange-specific policies and controls.

I still believe the Kindle Fire HDX's main strength is its integration with Amazon's digital media services. As such, the tablet is first and foremost a consumer device. It more than meets the basic needs of most business users and organizations, though, and it could be a great BYOD option.

Bottom line: The apps make the tablet, in most cases. The Kindle Fire HDX devices are seriously limited by the Kindle Fire OS and its inability to access Google Play's full lineup of Android downloads. This fact alone should make IT managers at least consider other tablet options before deciding on a Kindle Fire HDX device.

Learn more about Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX tablets on the company's website.

AS

Al Sacco covers Mobile and Wireless for CIO.com. Follow Al on Twitter @ASacco. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

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