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Kindle: The Holy Grail or the last gasp of eBooks?

By Evan Schnittman

You have heard rumors of it for nearly a year now – Amazon has an ebook reader that will run on a new ebook kindle.jpgplatform 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.)

What Kindle has that no other device I have seen has – and to me, these are the two biggest breakthroughs – a qwerty keyboard and EVDO cellular wireless connectivity.

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’s PictureEvan 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.

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31 Responses to “Kindle: The Holy Grail or the last gasp of eBooks?”
  1. [...] MacInTouch: timely news and tips about the Apple Macintosh wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt By Evan Schnittman 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 compel [...]

  2. tomasalsa says:

    This really is the future of ebooks and I’m sure google and yahoo will have a hand in the exploitation of these devices.

  3. Yacko says:

    >>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

  4. Pietro Watanabe says:

    I see it as the last gasp. I’ve been using ebooks since the Palm pilot came out. What distinguishes this from early efforts is the quality and size of screen. A reader needs very little interactivity, just choosing content and navigating it. The wireless part only enhances refreshing periodic content on a daily/weekly basis such as newspaper or magazine subscriptions without any effort except during the initial subscribing. Novels and such and regular computer sync is sufficient. Load up a month or more of this more permanent content on an very occasional sync is no problem. Besides an iPhone type of device, blown up this size would make this device totally non-competitive.

  5. DrXym says:

    This device looks like it was designed by a committee. It looks ugly and its expensive. I don’t really see the value proposition here – spend $400 and still have to spend $10 on books? Seems like a terrible idea to me especially since you can’t sell them on, or loan them out.

  6. I am not yet convinced. The etch-a-sketch Sony Reader loading of a page was quite slow, and unless the Kindle is instantaneous, it won’t replicate the experience of turning the page of a p-book, and being able to start reading that page instantly. The key is, surely, what the under 25 age group make of it, and, even more importantly, how much this bit of kit cost? Looking up words in a dictionary, or a reference title – yes – but reading 800 pages of Harry Potter, or a book about philosophy, or any novel – I am doubtful.

  7. Chris Wills says:

    The key is not the under 25s – how many books do they read? The key is the over 40s who read a novel or more a week and have done so for 20 years or more. I read voraciously and everywhere; on trains, buses, planes, the beach in full sunlight and on park benches in the snow whilst waiting for a friend at lunch. I can see advantages of the ebook – my loft and garage are full of boxes of books I have read – but I’m not convinced the ebook will ever replace them. Does it have that new book smell when you turn the pages? Does it evoke memories when you pick it up and a playing card falls out with a scrawled note from a loved one. Can you line all the books up on a shelf by genre then by author then by size? How will it replace the joy of going to a bookshop and browsing and finding something you didn’t intend to read? Yes I buy from Amazon but I still go to bookshops because they are such wonderful places. Anyone who comes up with some electronic babble about the wonderful things this ebook can do that real books can’t clearly doesn’t read a lot and doesn’t understand the lure of real books. I’m sure the ebooks day will come but only when the book reading generation start dying off and is replaced by the many under 40s who don’t read. One day the ebook will become the latest fashion accessory. ‘Oh I’ve got all the top 20 New York Times list books for the last 10 years on my ebook.’ ‘Have you read any of them?’ ‘Don’t be silly….’
    Long live the real book.

  8. Kontra says:

    While Kindle did a few smart things, it may be fundamentally flawed. Newsweek says Amazon’s looking at it as “the iPod of reading.” I explained why it won’t be here:

    “Why is the new Kindle eBook reader from Amazon and not Apple?”
    http://counternotions.com/2007/11/19/kindle-vs-iphone/

  9. John says:

    DrXym’s got it right. The older book demographic won’t buy it because they’re not gadget people, and young readers (yes, young people do read books) won’t because it’s fugly, and they’re already lugging around an iPod, smartphone, and laptop. On top of those devices, the Kindle is a redundant piece of crap.

    Once again it’s going to be left to Apple to get this right. Schnittman is correct that any media device has to be networked, and have easy access to an enormous reservoir of content. But it has to be beautiful, or at least attractive, and it has do more than one thing. The iPhone is beautiful and multifunctional, for the same price. Speaking of price, who in their right mind is going to pay $14/month for the New York Times, in this emasculated, black and white, linkless form? Or $2/month for a bunch of otherwise free blogs? If they get 17 subscriptions, I’ll be shocked.

    The Kindle is going to go down like the Lusitania.

  10. Pamela Benjamin says:

    $400 for a book reader? I can get Lasik surgery for that price and read my books the old fashioned way.

  11. Bob Martinengo says:

    Kindle is designed to fail. Thats right, Bezos knows this turkey is overpriced and outmoded, but thats the point – you have to start somewhere.

    In Monty Python and the Holy Grail (source of all wisdom), remember the guy who says, I built a castle, and it sank in to the swamp, so I built another, and it sank in to the swamp, so I built a third castle, and it burned down, fell over, and then sank in to the swamp, but the fourth one stayed up!

    Thats Kindle.

  12. Scott Belyea says:

    “In Monty Python and the Holy Grail (source of all wisdom), remember the guy who says, I built a castle, and it sank in to the swamp, so I built another, and it sank in to the swamp, so I built a third castle, and it burned down, fell over, and then sank in to the swamp, but the fourth one stayed up!

    Thats Kindle.”

    Yes, but you’ve missed a key point. Even after all that effort leading to success, his son and heir just wasn’t interested!

    Kindle may not be quite the last gasp for e-books, but the breathing is getting noisier …

  13. [...] has unveiled Kindle – an ebook reader which is being praised as the holy grail and condemned as the last gasp of [...]

  14. [...] can’t wait to try out Amazon’s Kindle. But for now I’ll just thumb through Perrault’s fairy tales, page by beautiful page. [...]

  15. Raz says:

    If they can get textbooks on this thing, then they might be on to something. I would pay, if I could carry all my textbooks around in a thing that size.

  16. No matter the advantages that the Kindle has over other e-readers I am still convinced that the e-book market will grow along the lines of the audio book model. There will be a strong market for certain groups (students, business travelers, technophiles under the age of 30, etc…) but with a general audience it will have a limited appeal. Most readers who read regularly for pleasure will still want the aesthetic experience (and practical logistics) of a printed and bound book. I don’t think the Kindle, or any e-reader for that matter, will increase the number of casual readers out there.

  17. Danielle Marsden says:

    Does Kindle have a user friendly index? If it can contain say 200 books. It ought and the very least to have an index so that one can make cross references between books. Also when is it going to become available in Britain? At the moment it doesn’t seem very user friendly in that respect.
    I haven’t heard anyone mention an index at all.

  18. [...] The people who like ebooks most of all are publishers. They are much cheaper to produce than the real thing and if you load them up with DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) software you can sell the same file to the same person several times over. Over the last few years there have been signs that publishers have been losing control of the distribution channels. Self-publishing is growing fast and just as bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have been able to escape the grip of their record companies, so the day is fast approaching when writers will want to do the same. Deals with companies like Amazon help lock the new digital distribution channel to the major players and offer the chance to control it. [...]

  19. [...] Evan Schnittman’s entire post. H/T to Dr. Weinberger for the link. Also read his excellent article about eBooks (he thinks they [...]

  20. G Armstrong says:

    What happens in 5 years when the format changes or the license expires? My ancestors will still have my print books in a beautiful and delightful format 500 years from now. With the Kindle, you can’t print out a passage, e-mail it to a friend or copy it into a document, thus negating any advantages an e-book might have. You can’t lend a book to someone, or sell it after you’re finished. Your book is tied to your Kindle and its e-mail account. Good luck to you when Amazon or whatever data provider changes its business model or goes out of business.

  21. Douglas says:

    I believe you’ve missed a very critical part of the Kindle/iPod analogy. The iPod was wildly successful not only because of the iTunes content available, but because the iPod allowed you to put *your own* content on your device. In fact, the vast majority of iPods are filled with music they’ve ripped from their own CDs, or downloaded via peer-to-peer. Certainly the ability to buy new music, or replace old media, is one thing that set the iPod apart. But it *never* would have taken off if you’d been required to submit your files to Apple before they could be downloaded to your iPod! I am *dying* for a good eBook, but you can be sure I will not purchase any device that will not read PDFs, nor one that won’t let me drop my own files directly on the device. Amazon’s focus on DRM will kill the Kindle just as sure as DRM has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of devices before it.

  22. Jeremy says:

    Eric,

    I thought that this was one of the most level-headed and articulate statements about the Kindle that I’ve read. I completely agree with your assessment about the model+network idea; as an Apple devotee, I accepted and now thoroughly enjoy the iTunes experience. I have a Kindle on order for multiple reasons – the ability to carry endless reference books and texts, as well as my favorite novels and short stories is a dream come true, to me. And I’m a thirty-something! Thanks again for a great post!

  23. Jeremy says:

    So sorry – I got distracted by one of my boys! It’s EVAN! Again, my apologies!!!

  24. Shane says:

    No one appears to have mentioned that the iPod itself is an e-book reader. I have read dozens of portable, palm-sized e-books since I was given an iPod Nano. The Nano (and other models, I believe) sports a “notes” feature that allows the user to read plain text onscreen. A small freeware program, iPod Library*, will convert any text file to iPod format (books must be broken into special, iPod-friendly “chapters”). One loses all formatting, of course, and the conversion is not perfect (special characters are omitted, and at times, normal characters are mistranslated, an “M” becoming “1VI”, for instance), but for me, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. A book that fits in a child’s palm and that marks one’s place automatically is so handy on the subway (and elsewhere) that I find myself growing reluctant to return to reading from pressed wood pulp. But where to get the e-books? Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) is a good place to start, for the classics. And just about any PDF can be saved as a plain text file.

    __________
    *Download it from: http://www.sturm.net.nz/website.php?Section=iPod+Programs&Page=iPodLibrary

  25. [...] Evan Schnittman, OUP’s Vice President of Business Development and Rights for the Academic and USA Divisions, has a review of the Kindle Device up on the OUPblog. [...]

  26. J Wallace says:

    There’s sure a lot of misinformation about the Kindle out there–

    Just to correct one thing: The Kindle does allow you to make notes, highlights, etc., and print them out, insert them into other documents, or mail them to friends.

    G Armstrong: It’s “descendants” not “ancestors,” and you’ve no idea whether they will still have your books. Print books are susceptible to all manner of loss, as surely as e-books are, not the least of which is that paper biodegrades. Not to mention fire, theft, etc. DRM is no more restrictive than that. It’s already going away in the music industry, and it won’t be long before it’s gone in the publishing industry, too.

    John: Ha ha. I wouldn’t let Apple anywhere near this device. They haven’t any infrastructure to provide any content for books, either. Amazon’s got it, and knew enough to marry convenience with a pleasurable reading experience. Go try READING on the Kindle, and you’ll see. Having a portable book store in my pocket where I can call up virtually ANY classic book anytime I please for free is worth double what they’re asking for the Kindle, and that’s before you factor in the free web browser, free instant-answers-on-demand service, free dictionary, etc, and NY Times bestsellers for less than $10.

    The one place I will agree with all of you is that the Kindle isn’t for everyone. If you’re happy reading on an iPhone or laptop and can put up with the hassle of synching content and downloading and all that– go for it. But there are LOADS of people who don’t want another device to hook to a PC. They will jump all over this.

  27. Zacorbul says:

    I love the ideea. My Pocket Pc (200$)is not really good for reading so Kindle sounds great. But to be able to read only Amazon books and 400$ ?!
    Never !!!
    It is doomed to fail !

  28. [...] Original Post: I love books as artefacts–the look, the smell, the feel of the pages, the jacket designs, the inscriptions on the fly leaves from loved ones, the history of their material existence that old ones carry with them like an aura. Books are also, as many have pointed out, near-perfect technology for their purposes. It has been hard to imagine an electronic device giving as much pleasure, or allowing the same range of uses, even it could deliver the same content. But this week Amazon is launching its new Kindle, and I admit, I’d like to be able to try one out. Mark Thwaite at ReadySteadyBook points us to the write-up at the OUPblog: 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. (read the rest here) [...]

  29. [...] when Publisher’s Lunch hit my inbox, I was sort of taken aback at this quote from OUP’s Evan Schnittman: The risk here isn’t just to Amazon. If Kindle fails, the ebook is over, the theory of the [...]

  30. [...] Kindle. Because I’m lazy, I’m just going to quote the obnoxious comment I left on the OUPblog: “The older book demographic won’t buy [the Kindle] because they’re not gadget people, [...]

  31. [...] a promising opportunity if the Amazon Kindle download system bombs. Evan Schnittman at the OUP blog nearly gets there. After all, scientific and technical publishers have made a reasonable fist of creating a digital [...]

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