By Mitch Lipka
(Reuters) - Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet, one of the hottest gadgets this holiday season because of its low price, has some parents bristling over the simplicity at which children can order from the retail giant and the inability to stop them without crippling the device.
Another concern is over theft or losing the device, which can be then easily be accessed for purchases unless a user sets a password to lock the screen when it's not in use.
What happens is that when you order a Kindle Fire - which differs from the Kindle reader by allowing users to browse the web, play games, video and music - it comes with your Amazon account information preloaded, along with "1-Click" ordering. That means anyone who is holding that device can place an order, whether it's their account or not. No prompts come up to confirm the purchase or ask for a password.
So that means that the itchy fingers of toddlers can click way, including the 3-year-old daughter of Scenic Labs founder Jason Rosenfeld. He says his daughter was using the device and clicked on an image of a children's product that appeared on the screen because it was in his shopping history -- he had browsed the item while holiday shopping on his PC.
"She picked it up and got it running," Rosenfeld says. After seeing the order confirmation in his email, he was able to quickly cancel the purchase.
While the $199 Kindle Fire device has been embraced as a cheaper version of Apple's iPad ($499 and up), it's designed to streamline ordering an extensive array of goods sold by Amazon.com. So, the process is simplified. Competitor Barnes and Noble, which released its Nook Tablet ($249) without the same fanfare, requires users to confirm their purchases before they go through.
In an email in response to questions from Reuters about Kindle Fire, Amazon did not address concerns about the "1-Click" ordering, but says it has provided the ability for parents to limit what their kids buy when using applications downloaded for the devices.
"We do provide customers with parental controls for purchasing in-app items," Amazon's statement says. "We're also working on adding additional parental controls."
The company also says there's no issue with shipping the devices preregistered, even though there have been reports that devices have been removed from the clearly marked boxes and used to make purchases by unauthorized users.
"Customers tell us they love that Kindle Fire arrives registered to their account and ready to go," Amazon's statement says. "Those who prefer to have their Kindle Fire arrive unregistered can select 'gift' during the checkout."
An industry analyst says he doesn't expect the concerns to hurt sales, which are projected by research firm IHS iSuppli to be close to 4 million units by year's end (less than a quarter of Apple's tablet sales, but triple Barnes and Noble's).
Because Kindle Fire is one of the hottest products this holiday season, R. J. Hottovy, director of Global Consumer Equity Research for Morningstar, says he expects that consumers will look past the security issue.
"It will probably triumph over any concerns on that end," he says.
If complaints continue, Hottovy says, it shouldn't be difficult for Amazon to add the extra purchasing step you see on most devices.
"I would expect that Amazon will add that sort of functionality to the software over time, if it becomes a bigger issue," he says.
For now, though, the single-click purchasing requirement to make the Kindle Fire fully-functional remains. And that has some parents who either bought the tablets as holiday presents or already have them in their homes angry.
St. Louis area software engineer Lance Durham says he decided to get a couple of Kindle Fires to give as presents to his children. He was loading some games before wrapping them and realized he couldn't turn off the single-click ordering, which charges his credit card.
"There was no password or pin, nor any kind of confirmation - the purchase immediately went through," he says.
So Durham called Amazon and says he was told the ordering from Amazon could not be disabled, and the company suggested he "deregister" the device after every purchase. That, he says, caused the downloaded apps to stop working.
He returned the tablets.
Others suggest turning off the wireless, which would allow only the use of previously downloaded items, such as books and games. Some forums on Amazon are filled with user after user trying to come up with ways to beat the system with limited success, including turning off the "1-Click" option.
San Francisco-area software developer Subrata Majumder says he turned off "1-Click" and that did nothing.
"Kids can tap the '1-Click' button out of curiosity and contents are purchased immediately. My son taped the '1-Click button' a few times," he says.
As it did for Majumder, customers say Amazon has been refunding these errant purchases. But the inability to control his preschooler from making purchases, prompted him to return the device. "Can my 3 1/2 year old son take my credit card to a retail store and purchase goods?"
Gary Davis, director of consumer product marketing for web safety and protection firm McAfee, also warns parents they won't be able to use parental controls to restrict browsing as they can on other computers.
"Any device that has an unfiltered connection to the Internet is an unsafe environment for children," he says. "Parents need to be aware that the Fire is more than a standard e-reader, and take appropriate precautions when allowing children access to the device."
Kurt Roemer, chief security strategist for Citrix Systems, says parents and other users should understand what the Kindle Fire is and how it works before letting anyone use one.
"My advice is if you can't trust someone with a device that can place orders in a click and may have access to age-inappropriate content - don't hand it to them," he says.
The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.
(Editing by Jilian Mincer and Beth Gladstone)