Alas, Whispercast

Categories: Apps, Gadgetry, The Classroom
Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: November 19, 2012

Apple, Google and Amazon are competing hard in the consumer market, but not a one has been able to quite meet the demands of the eduction market. I’ve long felt the first one to come up with a viable deployment and management solution, including textbook management and delivery, will be the winner in this space. To date, there is no clear leader.

Amazon’s solution is Whispercast, a free web interface for managing Kindle devices, content, and users. I purchased a handful of Kindle Fire HD tablets to test deployment and management, and while it holds a lot of promise, it still feels very much like a beta product.

Close but no cigar, Amazon

To sign up for Whispercast, one only needs an Amazon account. I used the credentials specific to my school email address to log in and I was ready to go. The management screen is fairly straightforward, with some “Get Started” documentation and a number of links and tabs for Users, Devices, Policies, Documents, and eBooks.

What they don’t make quite clear is how to order hardware through Whispercast. There’s a “how to purchase” link which instructs you to call Amazon directly. Call them, however, and they’ll tell you to just order the devices you need through the standard Amazon shopping process. Then you come back and enter the order number into the Add Devices button on the Devices tab.

Okay, fair enough. I’m only ordering three and they don’t charge me tax, so I’m good with that. I entered the order number, however, and Whispercast couldn’t find any Kindles. I had to wait a while until the order was actually processed and shipping before Whispercast could actually “see” the Kindles.

These are small things, to be sure, but it’s unnecessary confusion.

Kindle Users, meanwhile, can be created individually, in bulk with a template, or through invitation for existing Amazon accounts. Users can then be placed into Groups for management purposes. Every new user created also gets an Amazon account, so the email address must be unique. This is where Amazon demonstrates two examples of foresight:

  1. If a student or teacher already has an Amazon account, the administrator can add a plus sign and a random string to make the account unique. For example, I created moliveri+kindle1 and moliveri+kindle2 email addresses. I still receive email generated from account usage, but it keeps these Kindle accounts separated from the primary account I use to manage Whispercast or to purchase hardware.
  2. In a BYOT/BYOD environment, users with existing Kindle accounts can be invited to the Whispercast management system. This way an administrator can still push Kindle content to the user without actually taking ownership of their device or interfering with any content they may already own.

Created Users can then be assigned to devices. This is done either randomly or by assigning them to a specific device by typing in (or copying & pasting) the device serial number into a field. You can see a screen shot of the device screen with users assigned below.

Whispercast screen shot
The Device Management screen

The plus side of this is as soon as I opened the Kindle Fires and connected them to my wireless network, they were provisioned with the assigned users. On the down side, because the device serial numbers are not visible on the outside of the device (especially after they’re placed in a case), there’s not an easy way to keep track of which devices are assigned to which users. In the future, I’d like to see the ability to rename devices to make deployment and management easier, particularly in a loaner/library setting. Allowing a serial number from a bar code to tie into an asset management system would be even better.

Simple Policies can also be placed on the devices. Restriction policies, for example, allow administrators to block the store, social network integration, or the web browser, or to lock out factory reset, prevent wireless tampering, and enforce password/lock settings. The Wireless Networks policies allow an administrator to push out wireless network settings to the devices for roaming around campuses. There isn’t much granularity in these settings, but they work in our environment.

Through the Documents tab, administrators can push their own documents out to the devices. I uploaded a PDF file and it arrived on each device in moments. The only trick here is Whispercast still uses the shopping cart metaphor, so it feels like you’re purchasing a free document rather than uploading and distributing something.

At this point I was able to use the Kindles and download free eBooks. They came with 30 days of Prime membership, so I was also able to borrow a book from the Kindle Lending Library for free. I knew going in that Whispercast was not set up for apps, but I was disappointed to learn that I could also not download free apps without a credit card associated with the accounts. Parents and students could conceivable add credit cards or pre-pay debit cards to their accounts, but it would be a lot more convenient for a student to be able to download Evernote or similar apps without having to track down a card.

To this point, I didn’t see any real showstoppers. However, when I involved the librarian and started to purchase eBooks, the major shortcoming started to appear.

I had intended to turn these Kindles over to our library from the beginning, so I wanted to add our librarian as an administrator. Unfortunately there is no way to do so within the Whispercast interface. I called Amazon for help, and once they verified her Amazon account, they were able to give her information to the developers. It was then about 24 hours before she was able to log in.

The library had two older e-ink Kindles already, and we wanted to add them to the Whispercast account as well. Again, the only way to add them to the Whispercast account is through order numbers, and we were only able to find the number for one of the Kindles. The system did not acknowledge the order, so we had to again call Amazon. They gave us the choice of inviting a user (which we could do ourselves) or providing them with the device serial numbers. We chose the latter, they were turned over to the developers, and once again we had to wait until the Kindles appeared on the Whispercast account.

Now device management got a little dicier. Random assignment to users is the easiest, but now if a Fire HD and a Keyboard Kindle were both available, the librarian would have no control over what a student received. This would require her to track serial numbers on the exterior of the devices to be sure she assigned the student to the correct device. Also, some kind of checkbox or drag-and-drop interface would be much more helpful than entering or pasting a serial number.

Finally, and the most problematic, is the entire Kindle library is not available to Whispercast. The librarian looked up several of the most popular books through the Whispercast eBooks tab but could not find them. She tried a few other titles at student prompting, and only found a couple of them. Yet another call to Amazon and they told her no, the full library is not yet available and the developers were working on it.

Overall, it’s a great start but still very much a beta product. They Whispercast home page talks about a school in Florida already deploying Kindles to 3600+ high school students, but there are a lot of compromises to deal with for that many devices. Having to make a phone call and wait 24 hours for changes just doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially where non-technical users may be administering the devices.

Right now, I feel like if I could take the over-the-air management and content deployment of Whispercast and merge them with some of the granularity of Apple Configurator for iOS devices, schools would have a really solid product. And whither Google in all of this? I understand they have management for Chromebooks, but I haven’t seen anything for Android tablets.

In the end, it appears the manufacturers are content to hand us off to third-party device management vendors for the time being. There are some good solutions out there, but they only add to the costs of deployment, which can make or break 1:1 programs in cash-strapped districts. This is why smaller players like the Kuno Mobile Tablet are starting to make strides by bundling their devices with a management package.

Schools are ready to catch up with the hardware. Now it’s up to the manufacturers to catch up with us.

1 Comment
  1. […] to download any apps without having a credit card associated with the account, including free apps. Without the ability to push apps through Whispercast, the burden shifts to students to download apps they need, and will at least require obtaining gift […]

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