Thoughts on the Amazon Kindle

I feel ambivalent about the Kindle.

The Kindle is a new eBook reader from Amazon that can download books anywhere (without a computer) and surf the web. It costs $400 and the cost of books for it from Amazon are significantly cheaper than the new physical versions – which doesn’t mean that they’re cheap, though. Oh, and it looks as ugly as sin.

In my previous post about the Kindle, I complained about its ugliness, its size (you couldn’t fit it in a handbag) and its price; at the time I thought it was going to be $500 or $600. The first two things haven’t changed, but it is cheaper.

Even $400 is still just too expensive though, and while the ability to buy and download books anywhere is quite attractive, the fact that they cost (say) $7 instead of $10 is not sufficient recompense for taking away the ability to lend books to friend – not to mention the lack of a physical version. Being able to subscribe to newspapers and blogs is also nice, but not at the prices they’re offering. $14 a month for the New York Times seems good in comparison to the news-stand price, but bad when compared to the $0 of reading it on the web (or the iPhone).

And yet you can read Wikipedia for free. And yet you can still import your own books (probably stolen) to it, albeit in a clunky manner. And yet, and yet…

The Kindle is a much more respectable attempt at a mainstream eBook reader than I originally gave it credit for. There are some genuinely innovative and useful new features in it, including the wireless and the reduced book prices. But it’s clearly held back both by the technology, which can’t be helped, and by the design, which certainly could. The Kindle seems like a product rushed out to market before Christmas. In a few years, when the smaller, thinner Kindle 3 is released (I doubt the Kindle 2, whatever it is, will make the leap to mainstream) with a colour screen – perhaps even a touchscreen so there’s no need for a keyboard – and it costs only $200, then we’ll have something that provides a real alternative to carrying around a book and a magazine in your bag all day.

For now, I don’t think it’s even for early adopters – they already have eBook readers and iPhones. It’s actually for die-hard book lovers, and I don’t know whether they’ll want it.

From one point of view, Amazon had no choice but to create something like the Kindle; by allowing anyone else to do it first, such as Microsoft or Apple, then they’d risk losing customers and mindshare. Still, the Kindle was a bold move made with conviction, if not skill, and I’m impressed by how well it’s been picked up by the media. Clearly, despite suggestions that ‘no-one wants eBooks’, there is a real fascination with what technology might do to reading. It’s already transformed music, videos and the telephone for the better… why not books?

3 Replies to “Thoughts on the Amazon Kindle”

  1. While I really like the concept of an eBook reader and I appreciate the great technology behind the Kindle (although perhaps not the Tandy-inspired industrial design), I am pretty certain that a dedicated device probably isn’t the way to go. People do not, generally, want to carry yet another device, especially not to replace a low-tech/low-fi thing like a book. I think they’ll put up with it if it’s an extra feature of something they already have to carry around (an iPhone or general purpose tablet or whatever.) Honestly, for the same price, I can get (and have already ordered) an OLPC laptop, which is only slightly larger yet still pretty small, has a nice high-DPI “convertible” screen that turns it into a tablet, comes with an eBook reader that handles a variety of (open) formats, and anyone can write software for it. For those in my circle of friends, that is a much better value proposition than a dedicated DRM-laden eBook device. Now, I may not be the typical user, but honestly, I am not sure who the typical user is for this device.

  2. I think you’re right. Ultimately, the only unique thing that separates eBook readers from other devices such as the iPhone and tablet PCs is the eInk display. As soon as someone figures out how to combine the advantages of eInk with the refresh rate and colour gamut of LCDs, then I suspect the function of eBook readers will subsumed into those of normal laptops or phones.

    I really like the look of the OLPC and I’d be interested to hear your opinion on how well the convertible screen works.

  3. I agree completely about version 3 being the consumer edition. Rather than do an Apple and wait for perfection before releasing it, they’ve decided to leap into the marketplace to create a commercial model for e-books before the readers become commonplace. In other words, learn from the mistakes of the slow-moving record industry in the late 90s. How many years was it after the launch of the MP3 player before you could legally buy one?

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