In the current Newsweek cover story “The Future of Reading” Steven Levy describes Amazon’s new eBook reader Kindle. In development since 2004, the stats on Kindle are impressive:
$399; 10.3 ounces, paperback size and shape; 6-inch high-res 167 ppi screen from E-Ink; 200 book, extensible storage capacity; 30 hour battery, with 2-hour recharge; wireless connectivity via Sprint EVDO; 88,000 books for sale, most new books at $9.99; prominent newspapers, magazines subscriptions; Wikipedia, Google searches; always-on, PC tethering not necessary.
But we’ve heard so many eBook promises for so long that it’s hard to take them seriously: Franklin eBookMan, Rocket eBook, Sony Librié, iRex iLiad, to cite some of the better known ones. The latest (and the first major implementor of the E-Ink screen technology also used by Kindle) is the $299 Sony Reader. None of these devices have caught the attention of readers in any meaningful way. Why should Kindle be any different then?
Because it’s from Amazon, the most prominent retailer on the web. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is careful not to position Kindle as yet another digital gadget: “This isn’t a device, it’s a service.”
Levy speculates on the potential for reading devices like Kindle that are always-on to aid the discovery process by links to other eBooks and reader communities, automatic subscriptions, community annotations, cross-book searches, recommendations, hyper-targeted advertising, even serialized books where the text is never quite finished as it’s constantly updated by the author or the community. These can all play to Amazon’s strengths, unlike earlier attempts that have not been successful in cultivating services for connected devices.
The price of Kindle may be too high (Bezos points to the iPod that was priced also at $399 at its introduction). Kindle’s design may be clunky, DRM too restrictive, screen not as large or colorful, storage capacity not enough, store not as extensive, and so on. But in Amazon, Kindle has a parent that is determined to take a loss to expand the market and the reach of the device.
“The iPod of reading”?
Levy says “Though Bezos is reluctant to make the comparison, Amazon believes it has created the iPod of reading.” While “the iPod of …” has become a cliché to describe any product with a semblance of distilled design sensibilities emanating from Cupertino, there is one fundamental strategic reason why Kindle won’t be like the iPod.
As Steve Jobs often repeats, the vast majority of music on existing iPods are not purchased from the iTunes Store. The music labels claim they are pirated, Apple and others say they are mostly ripped from existing CD collections or otherwise acquired online or from friends. Either way, iPod users have had an easy way to populate their devices, without having to repurchase most of what they have already paid for or illegally downloaded.
Kindle users, however, will have to purchase or repurchase all the content on their reader. Whereas it was possible to pay $399 for an iPod and enjoy all the music you wanted legally or illegally without any additional expense, not so with Kindle. Amazon is banking on the proposition that readers will indeed pay more for the convenience and additional social aspects of the digital device, just as they have for iPod/iTunes.
Kindle or iPhone?
Bezos’ comparison aside, I think Kindle is far more comparable to the iPhone than the iPod. The iPhone is roughly half the weight (4.8 ounces) of Kindle, its screen (3.5 inches) is about 40% smaller and its resolution (160 ppi) is almost the same. The two devices seem to share a lot of capabilities. In fact, Levy drops a either a juicy hint or a common wish-lits item regarding the iPhone’s potential as an eBook reader itself:
I’ve been reading Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” on my iPhone, a device that is expected to be a major outlet for e-books in the coming months.
This invites us to further speculate. A device like Kindle embodies many Apple strengths: small form factor, connectivity, easy interface, service back-end, media integration, systems design, transactional fees, untapped market, existing patents, etc.
While its screen is smaller, the iPhone’s connectivity, storage, integration with the web via Safari, multimedia capabilities, etc., are equal or better than Kindle’s, at a much better price considering all the other features it supports. So why hasn’t Apple brought in the publishing industry to the iPhone? Yes there have been a few announcements like the Texterity portal, but by and large, prominent brands and especially book publishers are absent on Apple’s device. Does Apple believe that long-text reading is not suitable for mobile devices and thus not a viable business? Or is it possible that they are already in touch with publishers for iPhone partnerships? Or will the iPhone get bigger and transform into the fabled “iTablet” device everybody’s been waiting for?
In digital music, despite Apple’s seemingly insurmountable lead, Amazon has shown its willingness to compete with Apple head on. With no apparent current interest in the market, could Apple be ceding the eBooks front to Amazon? If Apple were to compete, would it be wiser to build its eBook business on the iPhone or a new, larger and perhaps a more dedicated device?