Amazon Kindle: Must Try Harder

The New York Times has an interesting article about the progress that eBooks are making, based largely on two major pieces of news.

Firstly, Amazon will unveil their Kindle eBook reader next month. Kindle has a similar display to the Sony Reader, which I’ve reviewed, but it’ll also be able to connect to mobile phone networks to download books and newspapers away from any computer (but not take phone calls, in case you were wondering). It’ll also have a keyboard for taking notes on and browsing the web.

A unnamed publisher in the article says:

This is not your grandfather’s e-book… If these guys can’t make it work, I see no hope.

Well, perhaps there’s no hope then. I don’t think the Kindle, at $500 or $600, will sell particularly well. Maybe it’s not supposed to, maybe it’s just a test, but people shouldn’t pin their hopes on it. The Kindle’s additional features, rather than helping it, will instead draw unfavourable comparisons with the iPhone ($399) or the iPod Touch ($299). Anyone who’s seriously interested in browsing the web on the move and can afford the Kindle will already have an iPhone or comparable device; besides which, the current generation of eInk displays just can’t hack decent web browsing (remember, they’re black and white, for one thing).

The presence of the keyboard may mean that the Kindle is too big to stick in, say, a handbag, and it doesn’t do much for its looks either, if this prototype is anything to go by:

So that leaves reading books, the experience of which will be largely the same as the $300 Sony Reader. The button layout is better than the Reader, and I expect the software will be more streamlined, but not hugely so. Admittedly, being able to buy books on the move is a valuable feature to have, and in time, all eBook readers will have it. Having the New York Times delivered automatically is definitely an attraction. Still, it’s just not enough to warrant shelling out an extra $200 or $300, especially if the books cost the same as physical books.

Based on the details released so far, my advice is to wait for the second version. I would like to be proved wrong, but the Kindle is just too expensive for what it is.

The other big news is that Google is going to start selling some of its books. It’ll be a disappointingly small number at first, at disappointingly high prices, but it’s a start and Google will be able to scale up very quickly.

Incidentally, Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupiter Research, repeated this tired old ‘argument’ about eBooks:

We have had dedicated e-book devices on the market for more than a decade, and the payoff always seems to be just a few years away.

Well, that means it’s never going to happen, right? Clearly there’s no difference between bulky, expensive eBook readers with LCD screens and poor battery life, and the Sony Reader – or indeed, eBook readers with full colour flexible paper.

9 Replies to “Amazon Kindle: Must Try Harder”

  1. Well… officially we have no information about this “Kindle”. I hope that the real product has nothing to do with this prototype: honestly, what we need right now isn’t WiFi and a keyboard.
    A simple reader that would support both open standards and Amazon/Mobipocket, with a low price (100-200$) is what the mass market really need.

  2. Yes, that’s a good point – none of this is confirmed. Unfortunately the evidence for the wireless and keyboard is pretty strong.

    $200 is probably the most you can get people to pay – any more and you’ll get a lot of ‘What, and I have to pay for books as well?’. Open standards would be wonderful.

    A smarter move for Amazon would be to simply open up a web store with a simple API that various readers and software could plug in to. I am yet to be convinced that they can do hardware or software particularly well.

  3. It’s rather spendy, but the iPhone is a pretty decent eBook reader. Most people with an iPhone did not shell out the cash specifically to have a reader, but with a 3rd party app, its 160dpi screen makes reading fonts of any size quite easy. There are a few drawbacks, the biggest of which is hacking your phone (which is simple with http://iphone.nullriver.com/beta/ but is not necessarily a comfortable step for most people to take) and it only reads HTML, plaintext, and PDF files, but I’ve found the form factor to be quite nice.

    All that being said, I really don’t like reading much more than a short story (or chapter or two of Harry Potter) on an electronic device. I prefer old-fashioned physical pages and usually leave the iPhone for audiobooks.

  4. Thanks for this post, I would have missed the New York Times article otherwise.
    I have been running Bookyards (a free online library located at http://www.bookyards.com ) for the past 7 years, and I have been waiting just as long for a reliable ebook reader. Let us keep our fingers crossed.

  5. Jeremy: I was expecting that article to be about reading eBooks on the iPhone but it oddly talks about everything *but* that. Personally, I wouldn’t see myself reading too much on the iPhone – the screen size and form factor isn’t quite right – but I agree with Brian that there are some very interesting possibilities for short form or serialised fiction.

    I’m not convinced by her arguments – I just don’t believe that people are going to start browsing the web for information about books while in bookstores on their phones. If they did, they’d find that they could buy it cheaper from Amazon, which is hardly good news for retailers.

    I’m gadget mad, and if I’m in a bookstore, I’m looking at the books, checking their blurbs, browsing the bestseller and discount section. I’m not looking at authors or publishers’ websites on my iPhone – I’d do that at home. Before publishers worry about making their websites iPhone compatible (which is of dubious utility in any case) they should just be improving them full stop.

    People with iPhones can browse the web. We get it. Unfortunately, the more fundamental problem is that there’s an awful lot to do on the web besides read about books, and the iPhone is not going to magically change that.

  6. I found another article on her site which is probably the one you were thinking of: http://www.booksquare.com/how-the-iphone-can-save-the-book-business/

    The fact that there are PDFs on the iTunes Store does not make it anywhere near being a way of selling and distributing books. For one thing, publishers don’t appear to be interested, which is key. For another, Apple would have to make another dedicated app, and they have a full plate with all the other features and fixes they need to make.

    There is one major difference between the iPhone and a dedicated eBook reader, and that’s screen size. Phones are designed to fit into a pocket. Anything that fits into a pocket cannot be much bigger than the iPhone, which has a 3.5 inch display. This is not a comfortable size for most people, and so the only way you can get a bigger display is by having a second device. Since people already quite happily carry around magazines and books with them, I don’t think they’ll have any problem with carrying around a dedicated eBook reader. This is something I think Apple appreciates and will probably do something about one day.

  7. Adrian, I’m with you that the the $5/600 price point for the Kindle is way, way too much.

    I can see techies wanting to play getting an iPhone etc. and so ignoring the Kindle, and I can see bibliophiles running a mile from that kind of outlay — its, what, the price of 50 or 60 paperbacks?

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