Thoughts on Amazon Whispercast

Recently Amazon announced - in the US only, naturally - Whispercast. Whispercast is an online tool that Amazon is marketing as a method of deploying Kindles in your school or business. Given my long-standing wish for a way to deploy electronic books to devices in a way that isn't astronomically expensive or entirely crazy-making, I was naturally interested.

As with all examples of using consumer technology in education, the devil is in the details. The question is: what does Whispercast actually allow you to do that you couldn't do before, and how does it compare to other content deployment systems?

Whispercast seems to be two things under one brand name:

  • A basic Mobile Device Management tool for Kindles and Kindle Fires
  • A volume purchasing system for Kindle content

Whispercast is said to work with both e-Ink Kindles as far back as the 'Kindle 2' - the last white version before what's currently known as the Kindle Keyboard - and all Kindle Fire devices although some configuration settings are not available on the original Kindle Fire and Kindle Touch. The content distribution part of Whispercast also works for the free Kindle apps on iOS, Android and the rest.

Whispercast MDM

As an MDM tool, you can now do a few useful things with Kindles, and you can do them wirelessly from a central interface:

  • Enforce a passcode
  • Configure wireless and proxy settings
  • Block things: Facebook, Twitter, the Kindle browser and the Kindle Store
  • Block factory reset, device deregistration and changes to network settings.

These are essentially the bare minimum things you might want to do when managing a Kindle. I'm surprised, though, that there's no adult content filter in this post-50-Shades world. I believe the new Kindle Fires can do this, but that it's not enforceable in configuration seems like an omission.

You may wonder how you're supposed to configure network settings on the device by a push from a remote website. The answer is that Whispercast will generate a configuration file for download that you manually install on each Kindle via USB. In this respect, it's not so different from installing a Configuration Profile through Apple Configurator. My understanding is that this step is only to configure the networking and the rest is configured via Whispercast push.

Whispercast Content Delivery

This is really the meat of any new features for these devices: can we get simplified access to books, apps and the rest? Unfortunately, Whispercast seems to fall short of my hopes and dreams: essentially, Whispercast appears to be functionally equivalent to Apple's Volume Purchase Program.

In the most basic form of using Apple VPP you bulk-purchase gift codes for specific apps, distribute them to end users and those users redeem their coupons in their own iTunes accounts to get a download of the app. As we have discussed before, this means that the end user now 'owns' that content and you have no way of getting it back.

Under Amazon Whispercast you bulk-purchase books, allocate those purchases to users and the users then see these purchases available in their account. Having spoken to some Whispercast beta testers my understanding is that, once a purchase is allocated to a user, it cannot be reallocated to another user at a later date.

The only significant difference between the Apple VPP model and the Amazon Whispercast model is that Amazon automates the "hand out the codes" step of the process. Most good MDM providers that support iOS can do the same for VPP codes.

Deployment Models

So, how could we use Kindles in school? I'm not all that interested - yet - in the Kindle Fire as a general purpose computer as it seems to suffer from many of the same problems as the Nexus 7 (in a nutshell: few great apps and none that aren't already on iOS). I am, however, very interested in finding a workable eBook platform for schools that combines ease of deployment, sensible pricing structures and year-to-year flexibility in reallocating purchased resources.

Essentially, the eBook problem comes down to: you, the publisher, want me to buy everyone a brand new copy of the book. I'm happy to do that, but you want £9.99 per copy. We're more used to paying £9.99 and giving it to 10 children over the course of years. Make your eBook £1 per copy and we can talk.

On the other hand, I'll buy 30 copies at £9.99 but I need to be able to reallocate those books next year.

Is there a way to square this circle? Maybe.

Whispercast, like the iTunes Store, requires that each Kindle have a separate Amazon account associated with it. Unlike the iTunes Store, Whispercast can bulk-create these accounts for you, which is handy.

Perhaps the model is this: create 20 generic "First Grade" accounts (e.g. fg01@example.edu through fg20@example.edu) and buy 20 copies of the First Grade reading list. Have the students use that account for a year. When they move on, give the account and password to the next set of pupils coming in.

This is harder to do in the Apple world because the use of AppleID/iCloud is so pervasive across the system. With the Kindle system (at least on the e-Ink Kindles, if not the Fire), it would potentially be easier as there's less actual data being stored in the user's account. The pupil logging into the account the next year would - I presume - find the last owner's book locations, highlights and notes in there but that's hardly different to the common experience of getting someone else's used textbook.

Such a deployment model might work in primary education - where everyone is in the same class, likely reading the same class novel at the same time. It doesn't really work for secondary education unless you buy all the books for every account because the pupil using the account next year is unlikely to be taking the same mix of classes as the last pupil.

I don't know whether Apple or Amazon is going to get this right first but the company who finally cracks it stands to win a lot of business the education market.

My thanks to Steve Kinney for reviewing an early draft of this article.