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US State Department to Buy $6,600 Kindles

Today I bring you a tale of glorious federal extravagance. Our wise and benevolent federal government has decided that it needs to buy 2,500 Amazon Kindles.

Update: The original source has retracted the story. It seems that the contract wasn’t a contract' it was an offer extended to Amazon. No deal has been made.

Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony need not apply; no, according to the requirements it must be a Kindle, because that’s the only device which fits the bill. it must have:

  • Mobi & PRC support,
  • 3G,
  • a case,
  • 6″ E-ink screen, and it must be
  • "the latest generation devices that have audio and video capabilities".

Sadly, that last requirement is not a joke. It’s actually in the spec sheet, and it is likely the explanation for why this contract was let for $16.5 million.

I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to funding out how exactly Amazon is going to pull that off. The Kindle Touch, as built, doesn’t have video abilities. Oh sure, you can hack them to add a video player, but at best that does not work well.

But that probably doesn’t matter to my government. After all, the bureaucrat who wrote the contract doesn’t actually have to spend his own money, and Amazon probably doesn’t care either (it’s not like anyone else could fill the contract, after all).


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Paul Kater June 11, 2012 um 1:42 pm

"US State Department to Buy $6,600 Kindles."
Do they really intend to pay $6,600 for a Kindle? I hope that’s a typo.

fjtorres June 11, 2012 um 2:17 pm

A tad of hyperbole.
They are asking for 2500 eink readers with 3G on a *four year* contract for $16.5M. Dividing the contract value by the number of units gives $6600. The contract specifies the units come pre-loaded with content (50 titles), be remotely and centrally-managed, and have TTS.
International 3G + TTS = Kindle.
Four years of remote content acquisition and deployment (they specified enough storage for at least 1400 books) and the fact the readers are going to be deployed world-wide and fed from the US with Deptartment of State -produced content.
So, grind your teeth oh-Amazon haters, the specs read as appropriate to the job and given the back-end services the bulk of the cost of the contact is for things other than the hardware.

Mind you: reading the specs closely offers two sweet bits of info.
Yes, video capabilities.
But more interesting is the requirement for *front-lighting*.
So, Nate is right: Amazon can’t fill this *already awarded* contract with the Kindle Touch.
But they can with the "Nite-light" Kindle.

In other words:
KINDLE 6 incoming!!!!

No rumor. 🙂

Nice find, Nate.

fjtorres June 11, 2012 um 2:31 pm

BTW, parsing the specs a bit more carefully:
– "the device may have audio and video…"
– "the device must have a front light feature…"

(When reading government contracts it is worth keeping in mind that in those documents "may", "shall" and, "must" have enforceable legal meanings.)

Also, since it is a 4 year contract, it "may" be that the video feature is to be deployed later.
Or maybe it’s a "would like" more than a "must have".

Also of note, the contract requires the deplyed content be available on PCs, MACS, Blackberries, etc. It is *not* just for the reader gadgets.

More importantly: nowhere does it say the supplied gadgets must be COTS; Commercial Off-The-Shelf consumer hardware.

We could be looking at custom-built Kindles.

(But I’m still betting on the K6. That way I get to count coup for my critical reading skills. 😉 )

Nate Hoffelder June 11, 2012 um 2:36 pm

Good find on the front light; my mind stopped working once I computed the price and tried to understand it (I think I had a stroke).

And yes, we are very likely talking about custom built Kindles here, but that doesn’t make the news any less ridiculous.

fjtorres June 11, 2012 um 2:50 pm

No, it is not ridiculous.
There’s a lot of >$50 billable hrs wrapped up in a contract with attached services and global spread.
It’s an election year and a non-competitive contract. You can bet the thing was vetted to within an inch of the Contract Officer’s life.
Try reading the whole thing through (If you can stand governmentalese): there are a lot of details in the back pages.

Lynne June 11, 2012 um 3:08 pm

Like fjtorres points out, these stories of government goods and services acquisition almost always have details that are REALLY important in evaluating the fairness and efficiency of contract terms, and the price.

Having done some quotes for government entities, looked at acquisitions done by my city government, and also where my husband works for a company that does multi-million dollar (and in some cases, billion dollar) projects, and also as an avid follower of politics, I find that the hyperbole by the media and…er…those of a certain political persuasion (ie "all government is bad all the time" sorts) is often very overblown.

There is a lot I could tell you, for instance, about the Big Dig in Boston that should have been part of the discussion, but was not. Everyone has the impression that was an overpriced project with too many problems. At least, that’s what the media tells you. But that’s not even a tiny bit of the whole picture or story. *shrug*

The "GUBB’MINT IS BAD!" story is just easier to put out there, it sells papers and confirms what people already believe…when the truth is so much more complicated.

Chad June 11, 2012 um 2:33 pm

If we are talking about Department of State solicitation SAQMMA12R0272, the actual quantity in the solicitation is listed as "indefinite" and the $16.5 million is the "anticipated value" of the contract (I would assume that leaves leeway for it to be overbudget…)

Added: Jun 07, 2012 4:44 pm
The US Department of State intends to award an indefinite-delivery indefinite-quantity commercial items contract on or about June 19, 2012, on a sole source basis to Amazon Digital Services, Inc. of Seattle WA for the commercial supplies and services described below. The anticipated value is $16,500,000 over the life of the contract, which shall be one base year plus 4 option years.

HeavyG June 11, 2012 um 2:54 pm

As Chad has pointed out this contract will be used for purchase of far more than just 2500 Kindles. The 2500 is just an immediate need. The total contract amount is for a multi-year procurement of devices and many other additional services.

Amazon is also providing a document repository service and a dedicated 24/7/365 support staff for DofS employees.

Reading thru the entire contract this doesn’t seem to be "a tale of glorious federal extravagance" to me.

Seems like a useful agency wide method of distributing digital documents to staff in far flung corners of the globe.

fjtorres June 11, 2012 um 5:57 pm

And not just staff: the Embassy libraries will be lending out Kindles in many places, too.
A minor but not insignificant use of american "soft-power".
One of the features the DoS reader system will have is to send out copies of licensed third party content to all the readers, not just propaganda and DoS documentation. Commercial ebooks. Textbooks. Magazines. All over a private system.
Somebody gave serious thought to that proposal to end up with a full-integrated system.
It just happens that system does things only Amazon is currently able to deliver.
Reading at the specs, neither Nook nor Kobo, neitther Apple or Sony can deliver.
The closest client reader turns out to be the Pocketbooks and they’re not doing global 3G and they don’t have the backend services. Which is to say nobody is even close to what Amazon is selling here.
And if Amazon is going to start selling turnkey "intranet"-style document distribution systems… well, that takes the war to a whole new level.

Thomas June 11, 2012 um 6:02 pm

Don’t the requirement for an E-ink screen and video capabilities contradict each other?

Nate Hoffelder June 11, 2012 um 6:10 pm

For the consumer model, yes.

fjtorres June 11, 2012 um 8:09 pm

Current model, right?
A near future model might meet the test. Current tech isn’t that far off:

Surely Pearl isn’t the end of the development cycle for electrophoretic screens?

Cheese McBeese June 12, 2012 um 7:20 pm

…BUT… if the decision is including potential future models, how then can the other vendors be excluded based on what they have today?

fjtorres June 13, 2012 um 7:28 am

The contract starts *now*.
Now, how many competitors can deliver TTS, global 3G, and centralized-push of user created content *now*? ("Now" being the time of contract implementation. It is common for contracts to include unreleased but finalized products–for example, PC contracts are probably being negotiated right now for Windows 8 or the next releases of MS Office, Exchange, and Sharepoint and the contractss will make that clear.)

The contract as written requires those features at the time of award; the video it merely allows for it to be offered but doesn’t require it. With the front light Kindle an open secret from weeks past it is hardly surprising for the Contracting Officer to ask and be briefed on the newest product to be available once the contract takes effect. Think about it: if the Contract *didn’t* specify the front light, Amazon would be well within their rights to clean out their warehouses and ship out last year’s Kindles.

People forget that the Government is also a *consumer* and contracting officers are required to do due dilligence to find the most appropriate tool for the task at the best possible price.
And that it is perfectly legitimate to buy a product *solely* on compatibility with pre-existing products. That is why it is perfectly legitimate to require mobi format support (or for that matter PDF) because the State Dept has been working this issue for years and generating content for years, probably before ePub was created. (What? Are they supposed to start from scratch every time a contract expires? Congressional inquiries are built of *that*.)

Looking at the specs and rationale in a cold hard light I see nothing wrong or inappropriate: they are looking to deploy reader devices from embassies the world over for a variety of purposes, including english reading education. That is a function where TTS can be very valuable. Not all readers will stay within the embassy compound or in range of its WiFi network, so global 3G would be useful in remotely managing the devices' content. And, consolidating management functions for the devices in the US means each agency doesn’t need to rely on (extra?) in-country personnel. (Cheaper support.)

It may stick in people’s craw but any way you slice it, this is a needs-based procurement done by the book.
Somebody showed competence. 🙂

Cheese McBeese June 13, 2012 um 11:09 am

@ fjtorres – you didn’t really answer my question. Yes, the contract starts *now* and there are some things that only amazon can deliver. But there are also some things that Amazon *can’t* deliver *now*. So no matter who wins, development is required and that’s why I just don’t get the directed contract.

I wish the contract where more honest – "we already have an Amazon infrastructure/relationship so anything else is more costly and less effective". I could understand that. The bogus tablet-based technical justification doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

fjtorres June 11, 2012 um 8:24 pm

The Atlantic Wire got ahold of somebody in the know at the state dept and confirmed it is a 5 year contract for services and content that happens to include a minimum of 2500 Kindles over that time frame. (Only the first year is guaranteed, though.)

And the price?
State Dept spokesman would only admit to 10% off.

As to the video capabilities: with Kindle deliveries scheduled over 5 years, some probably *will* be video capable.

It is still a juicy contract for Amazon.

Cheese McBeese June 12, 2012 um 5:25 pm

Note this comment taken from the justification document:

"As documented by the market research described below, the Amazon Kindle is the only e-Reader device on the market that can provide text to speech capability, extended battery life, and international power adapters required by the DoS, as described above, which precludes consideration of all other brands."

Really? These are the specific reasons that precluded any other vendors? If that’s so, this is a sham. The requirements specification for extended battery life is 8 hours of continuous reading or 7.5 hours of continuous video play.

It would seem to me that the requirement for continuous video play would preclude the Kindle. If the State Department is considering custom devices, then I would think that would 'un-preclude' all other vendors who don’t currently meet the requirements but could.

Cheese McBeese June 12, 2012 um 5:34 pm

Also from the justification document:

"Other e- Readers such as the Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony Reader Daily and Kobe e-Reader cannot provide the text to speech requirement, the long-lasting battery life and the free Wi-Fi with a global network (which is a firm requirement since all devices are to be used overseas). Additionally, the portability and durability of the Kindle is unique, and is required by the government due to overseas shipment requirements and use in public facilities by students.
Although the Apple iPad offers features that meet many of the requirements of this project it falls under the tablet/computer segment versus a single function e-reader device. The additional features are not only unnecessary, but also present unacceptable security and usability risks for the government’s needs in this particular project. Critically, the Apple iPad falls short on two requirements: the centrally managed platform for registration and content delivery, and battery life."

It is mentioned elsewhere in the document that this is actually an extension of some previous Amazon/Kindle projects… which I think is probably the key point. Somebody is trying to make their job easier my staying single-vendor.

fjtorres June 12, 2012 um 6:26 pm

That could also be boilerplate from an earlier procurement.
Considering how fast government procurement *isn’t* (when it comes to single vendor buys) the whole project may have started in the K1/K2 days and then updated regularly. The same thing happened in the early days of the PCs, especially for MAC buyers.
And no, the video feature is a "may" not a must.
They obviously have seen beta hardware for the K6 so don’t be surprised if some limited video playback materializes with the front light Kindles.

Cheese McBeese June 12, 2012 um 7:36 pm

A couple of comments…

1. Yes, I’m sure that Amazon has used their existing relationship to get unreleased hardware in front of the SD for this bid. If other vendors existing hardware is all that was considered, then that is unfair advantage and this process is corrupt.

2. I do see two things that Amazon brings to the table that the other vendors don’t: a global network of relationships with wireless vendors for the content delivery features, and existing process/distribution from previous projects. These are a big deal. The rest of it is phony justification that weakens the overall case and attracts criticism from guys like me who call BS when they see it.

fjtorres June 12, 2012 um 8:34 pm

Using existing relationships to give corporate (and government) customers advance notice of upcoming products is common practice by all major players. Even in the publishing world ("Advance Reader Copies").
No need to go looking for malfeasance so you can decry the process as corrupt.
Sole source contracts like this are publicly published *before* signing.
If the impacted parties did not call "BS" there isn’t much chance than any outsider who is offended can make a case before the GAO or the State Department Inspector general.
But if you think so strongly this is wrong and are so offended that they contracted for Amazon tech and systems, go here:

mailto:[email protected]

They actually offer whistleblower bounties to would-be Proxmires, usually 15% or so, so have at it.

The Digital Reader – The Best News and Info on eReaders and Tablets June 13, 2012 um 9:37 am

[…] A couple days ago the US State Department published details for a new contract that they’d just signed with Amazon to provide and support the use […]

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