Kindle: The Holy Grail or the last gasp of eBooks?
You have heard rumors of it for nearly a year now – Amazon has an ebook reader that will run on a new ebook platform powered by Mobipocket. Well, after many stops and starts, today Amazon released Kindle, or, what I call the “readers’ iPod.” This device, coupled with the awesome power of the Amazon web sales machine, represents perhaps the most significant moment in the history of eBooks.
I have always maintained that the iPod coupled with iTunes model is the key to a compelling ebook business. The iPod, perhaps the most fantastic device any of us own, would have been just another cool device sitting in our junk drawer if Apple hadn’t been prescient about the duality in digital content; Device + Network = Adoption.
Device alone (eg. any MP3 Player) or Network alone (eg, any music download service), are smudges on the windshield of the iPod + iTunes juggernaut. Sure, the iPod is infinitely cooler and better designed than any other player (Did anyone actually buy a Zune?) but its success is inexorably linked to the huge reservoir of content ready to be sold to consumers at iTunes. The device is designed to work seamlessly with the network and the network is designed to appeal to consumer tastes and preferences, Device + Network = a 70%+ market share for Apple.
This cuts to the core of why I am so enthusiastic about the new Kindle device. Amazon, being Amazon, has at its fingertips a wealth of publisher content. Due to good luck (Search inside the Book jump starting their digital content plans), good vision (buying Mobipocket), and the kind of financial commitment to success almost unimaginable in the retailing and publishing world, Amazon has created the Holy Grail of ebooks – Kindle + Amazon.com = the first consumer ebook success story.
I think it’s pretty easy for those reading this article to agree that Amazon will create an amazing network for selling econtent – they are the best in the world at e-tailing. What I think most of you will require is a bit more convincing that the device will carry the day – especially after catching glimpses of the prototype on certain tech blogs.
Kindle is the size of a trade paperback book – like most of the other ebook devices out there. It has left and right navigation bars for paging and a scroll tool to enable line selection within the text. While the versions of Kindle I have seen have been white and not as slick looking as the Sony Reader, Kindle, like Sony, uses the Phillips e-ink screen which enables type face changes, type size scrolling, and zero power use once a page has been formed. (The display is more like an etch-a-sketch than an electronic display.)
Why is a keyboard a breakthrough? Think of all the advantages that an electronic device could have over a book and you quickly will come up with a simple one – a dictionary. Then you will start imagining other reference works that could be available and then you will want to write notes in the margins, etc. Now all of these things can be done on most electronic devices without a keyboard – but they can only be done on an e-ink device with a keyboard. The reason is that an e-ink screen is not interactive and cannot be clicked on or highlighted, this is one of the limiting factors of the e-ink screen (along with color display and poor image resolution.)
Therefore, if your want to look up a word in the pre-loaded dictionary (btw, it just happens to be the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition on Kindle) you either have to scroll to the line of text where the word appears and see all the words defined or you must pull up the dictionary function and type in the word.
With the keyboard driving the ability to look up and notate content, the cellular wireless feature feeds the user with instant ecommerce gratification and enables connectivity to the broader world of content. Imagine finishing an ebook while stranded in the airport and not being able to get more content unless you find a bookstore. With cellular wireless connectivity (Amazon is calling their wireless service Whispernet) you can get instant access to the Amazon ebookstore and buy a new book to while away the hours… And if getting more ebooks instantly isn’t compelling enough, getting access to subscription products such as newspapers will be optimal with Kindle. Wake up every morning and the New York Times will be as up to date as the online version, but as easy and convenient to read as the paper version.
The connectivity issue beyond ebooks is really the most compelling and important part of the device and strategy by Amazon. Ebook devices must do a much, much better job of accessing all types of content – they must access a variety of textual content types, from online subscription sites, to blogs, to newspapers. Amazon has even included easy access to Wikipedia on the Kindle. Consumers will buy a product if it fits our lifestyle. Kindle has done its best to make that possible.
The commitment that Amazon has shown to give Kindle the iPod effect it deserves is an enormous risk. Amazon has not only committed itself to becoming a device manufacturer (well, at least a branding an OEM manufacturer’s device), it has committed itself to digitizing and converting everything publishers will give them. The combined expense is massive and if it doesn’t show the right return, may deal Amazon a deathly blow that even an 8th Harry Potter book couldn’t fix.
The risk here isn’t just to Amazon. If Kindle fails, the ebook is over, the theory of the “iPod model” is wrong for eBooks, and publishing must face the reality that consumers just don’t want to read immersive content on electronic screens of any sort… but let’s not rain on this glorious parade just yet. I think Kindle and the inevitable rivals it will spawn are here to stay. The ebook is dead, long live the ebook!
Evan Schnittman is OUP’s Vice President of Business Development and Rights for the Academic and USA Divisions. His career in publishing spans nearly 20 years and includes positions as varied as Executive Vice President at The Princeton Review and Professor at New York University’s Center for Publishing. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children.