A colleague of mine who is an avid reader of books (the analog paper kind) is very excited about her new Kindle from Amazon. She was kind enough to bring it in for me to play with over lunch last week; here are my observations.
The Kindle is Amazon’s first foray into launching a big time consumer electronics product. They describe it as a “Wireless Reading Device” as it gets its content from a satellite vs. over the Internet. It means there is no need to configure it with your router, or commit to a contract like you must with a cell phone package. This feature is extremely important in appealing to hardcores who love to read and aren’t necessarily technical optimists. The Kindle is only one step removed from the book vs. living at the other end of the spectrum in the computer world. Amazon has really nailed the description and positioning of this product.
You are always connected to Amazon’s server where you can purchase books, newspapers and magazines effortlessly. The Kindle will hold about 200 books before running out of memory. No need to seek out a hot spot. But the real reason the long predicted electronic book growth may have finally arrived, is the advancements in E Ink technology. The problem has always been how to make a screen as crisp and satisfying to the eye as printed type on paper. The visceral experience books provide holds tremendous appeal, particularly as publishers have evolved their materials and technology over the years. Paper books have had roughly a 500 year head start over electronic books. That momentum will make it hard for the E Book to gain a foothold.
As I clicked through, the device was quite a nice experience. The screen is of course the main event, and reading was satisfying. The font was clean and appropriately spaced. Navigating back and forth sets off a fade out/in transition that is a little jarring at first, but something I’m sure you would get used to quickly. The user interface was intuitive and relied mainly on a small roller located at the bottom right. It is equivalent to an iPod or Blackberry track wheel. Several times I accidentally hit the large click bars found on the right and left sides of the Kindle that caused the page to change before I was ready. The letter buttons at the bottom (not quite worthy of calling them a keyboard) were arched, making thumb access easier.
This device delivers on the Wireless Reading promise. Certainly more work on the design will be necessary, but this is the first generation. There are some pretty big missed opportunities; the cover is one. The Kindle nestles nicely into a black leather book binding cover. But it is plain. No opportunity to engrave your initials into the leather, no fancy stitching, and no branding whatsoever. Also, if you have the Kindle in a briefcase (and you will) the cover presses against the interface and causes unintentional clicks.
All in all, it’s a great first generation; congratulations Amazon. But will it succeed as a consumer electronics product? It’s $399, which buys a lot of analog books. Right now it is out of stock, so if you really, really want one you can’t get one. And since Amazon has no bricks and mortar locations, consumers can’t try it out before deciding to fork over the cash. Sure the iPhone was $400 to $600, but if you wanted one it was available. and you could try it in the Apple stores. This points to an overall weakness in Amazon. Their marketing and advertising needs some shoring up. I view them as a research and development stock and they have proven innovation with their web platform and recommendation engine that is best-in-class. This launch is in natural keeping to that core.
Steve Jobs, Apple’s visionary was quoted at the Macworld Expo as saying, “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is; the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.” I think Mr. Jobs has missed the point. Book sales definitely fluctuate, but the publishing business is in no danger of collapse. It did not stumble the way the music industry has done, and their physical destinations get better and better. Readers read. Gen X and Y will likely welcome a digital reading device.
The big question is can Amazon do it alone? Partnerships with publishers and/or bookstores may be necessary for Amazon to succeed. But why would publishing houses or the big book chains want to partner? Isn’t this cutting into their business? The answer is, not now, and not for a long time. I see the Kindle and other copycat devices that will surely be launched, as complimenting the book for many, many years. The Kindle is great for travelers, commuters, vacations and those that are heavy newspaper readers, but only occasionally read a book.
I used to run a small, regional bookstore chain in the ’80s, and as a result have a love of the book. Every time I move it takes weeks to pack up my collection. But I am also keen on technology. As such, both electronic and analog books could easily occupy a space in my life. Another example of convergence in action.
There are probably a lot of people in my category. So as the design improvements are made and the price becomes reasonable, I predict this type of device, will find a place in the market. Amazon got their first.