Yesterday, Amazon launched their first generation electronic book reader called the Kindle, priced at $399. It’s a small-ish, white, “tablet” style device that allows you to read an assortment of different media electronically. Unlike products by various competitors, it sits perpetually on Sprint’s EVDO cellular network (there’s no monthly cost!), which enables it to download any of 88,000 book titles from the Amazon store in under 1 minute, anywhere there is cellular coverage. You can also subscribe to daily papers, magazines, and blogs which can be downloaded before you wake up, or as the content is published — RSS style. It can hold up to 200 books, is capable of playing Mp3s (think Amazon Mp3 store) and browsing the web, and can even send and receive e-mail to and from an @kindle address. It uses a very limited browser, and has a black and white screen; for good reason though. In building a viable electronic book reader, the strain a reader experiences from looking at traditional displays for long periods of time is a huge concern. The kindle uses a technology similar in it’s appearance to an Etch-E-Sketch, called E-ink. Here’s an excerpt from a Wikipedia article on the technology:
“Electronic paper” also called e-paper, is a display technology designed to mimic the appearance of ordinary ink on paper. Unlike a conventional flat panel display, which uses a back light to illuminate its pixels, electronic paper reflects light like ordinary paper and is capable of holding text and images indefinitely without drawing electricity, while allowing the image to be changed later.
In coverage, the kindle drew inevitable comparisons to the iPod. Peter Kafka of Silicon Alley Insider published a post titled “Why Amazon’s Kindle is No iPod”, Eric Schnofeld in his review at TechCrunch said “The Kindle is essentially an iPod for books, with Amazon’s online book store taking on the role of iTunes”. In a lengthy, 3,757 word Newsweek interview with Jeff Bezos, the founder, president, CEO and chairman of the board at Amazon, Steven Levy reports that “Though Bezos is reluctant to make the comparison, Amazon believes it has created the iPod of reading.” Many other analogies have been made, although generally I think the comparison is superficial. In many ways, the kindle has a stronger resemblance to the iPhone than the iPod. After all, the Kindle’s star features are really all related to the device’s connectivity, and the many ways in which this might change the way people consume literature and other written media. The kindle has a browser, e-mail connectivity, e-commerce connectivity, the ability to store and display books, and play music — at no monthly cost. I guarantee that Apple sees this as an assault on their “Jesus Phone”, more so than on the iPod. Consider though that, according to one New York Times account, Apple’s iPhone was the subject of 11,000 print articles and had at the time 69 million hits on Google (now up to about 161 million). Where as the Kindle had hardly any media mention before it’s launch. It’s interesting to witness such a gaping style difference between the two companies. Amazon could have easily generated a considerable buzz in the months prior to launching the device Bezos says is the “most important thing we’ve ever done [at Amazon].” And it’s not clear why they didn’t, although this behavior is rather characteristic of Amazon. After launching their DRM-free Mp3 store, it didn’t seem as though they had even considered optimizing the page for search engines, and if you searched on Google for music on Amazon you would generally find links to the section of the site where they sell physical CDs.
Both the iPhone and the Kindle seem to channel the iconic founders of their respective companies. Where Steve Jobs negotiated a lucrative revenue sharing deal with AT&T, worth about $438 over the lifetime of the required two year contract, Jeff Bezos completely subsidizes wireless connectivity. Where Jobs built a futuristic, touch-screen, uni-surface, technophile’s embodiment of Jesus, Bezos built a slightly off-white, almost retro device, that in his own words is meant to “disappear.” Can you imagine Steve Jobs ever saying that he wanted the iPhone to disappear. Although I haven’t heard anything about a public response from the real Steve, Fake Steve posted a response that’s probably dead on:
I mean honestly what are they smoking up there at Amazon? Have you seen this thing? Sure, the feature set rocks — EVDO, Web browsing, read blogs, subscribe to newspapers, buy books over the air. But good God this thing is ugly. I mean if my dog looked like this I would shave its ass and teach it to walk backwards. Amazonians, remember this: people have to put these things in their homes! It’s called design. Have you heard of it? Apparently my dear friend Jeff Bezos hasn’t. Nevertheless this didn’t stop Newsweek’s Steven Levy from doing a big slurpy cover story about this damn thing prix levitra pharmacie. Apparently Levy was just so glad to get the drop on Goatberg for once that he promised the sun, moon and stars in order to get the exclusive. But come on. The cover of Newsweek? For a new book reader that isn’t even decent looking? Jaysus, as Bono would say. I smell a sweetheart deal. (Katie says the same thing.) Attention, editors of Newsweek: You can open your eyes and get up off your knees now. Mr. Bezos has zipped up and left the room. And yeah, you got some in your hair.
All I can say is that between this device and the Sony Reader you almost have the making of what you want. The Sony has a nice form factor and the gorgeous buttery soft faux leather case. The Kindle has better features. I know what you’re thinking. Wouldn’t it be just kick-ass super duper if, say, Apple came along and finally delivered the ultimate product in this category? Because you just know if we did it the thing would look gorgeous and have a beautiful feature set and would just kick everyone’s ass. What if we could get it done by January and announce it at Macworld? Gee whiz. I’ll have to mention this to Jony at lunchtime.
In a later post he jokes that Amazon is planning to release a whole line of related products, including one called the “Tinder” a “personal e-mail appliance” codenamed “GreenScreen”. Hilarious, but what Fake Steve points out is likely to be close to a lot of the media coverage — less the crude sexual reference. It’s hard to release a high profile un-flashy device in a post iPhone world without some criticism.
The Kindle is flashy in it’s own way though. The contract Amazon negotiated as an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Netork Operator) is revolutionary. They seem to be the first to realize that business models other than the subscription are possible. After all, offering connectivity to a high-speed wireless backbone for free, and supporting that cost through digital sales, makes a whole lot of sense. In 20 years, every device, car, computer, and home will probably be connected to the cloud through some sort of MVNO, and we’ll look back and see that Bezos was the first to explore that model. In a way it’s evidence that Amazon has a lot more faith in e-books and written content than Apple has in digital music and video. If you disagree with that statement, why doesn’t the iPod have free EVDO connectivity to the iTunes store, and a browser, and a free e-mail account? Although there is some question about the difference in bandwidth usage between books and music and video, it’s an interesting comparison. It might seem that Apple doesn’t believe in his distribution model enough to think it’s capable of supporting those services through sales of digital media.
Bezos doesn’t seem so concerned with the immediate reaction to the Kindle though, which would in a lot of ways explain why they didn’t feel they needed to captivate the world right away. Bezos sees the kindle as his life’s work, and calls it the “evolution of the book”. In a way that Steve Jobs might not, he understands that the Kindle could be the catalyst to an enormous paradigm shift, unlike the iPhone which is really just the latest step (an admittedly large one) in the much grander convergence of cellular technology and the personal computer. I can envision a much longer product arch for the Kindle than the iPhone. From that perspective, it even makes sense not to set it up like a fad as Apple arguably ended up doing with the iPhone. Jobs seems to be trying to merely build a profitable device franchise with the iPhone — mostly through interface innovation. Bezos, on the other hand, is attacking an entire paradigm, where design seems to be merely an afterthought in his grand plan.