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November 20, 2007

Amazon's Kindle: Not quite enough

V3screen2_v4948245__2 Amazon just launched a new device that they hope will change the way you read books. I give them some points for ambition and some for the features they built into the device, but for now, a perfunctory  glance at the device's features convinces me that it is not enough to gain significant traction in the marketplace yet.

What is Great About Kindle

  1. Electronic paper is easier to read. I've not seen the Kindle, but I've seen this technology. It so effective that one can easily forget he is not reading a piece of paper. Smart move.
  2. Easy to purchase books, wherever you are. Free wireless access gives users the ability to buy books from anywhere that has access to Sprint's data network.
  3. Instant word lookup and Wikipedia reference. Unless you have the vocabulary of Christopher Hitchens or Wes Pruden, you've probably read some things that you've had to look up, but without the benefit of immediate access to a dictionary. It's easiest to muddle through and move on to the next sentence, but Kindle gives users instant access to a built-in dictionary without forcing the user to lose his place.
  4. Ease of access to all your books at once. The downside to this is that all the other books you've purchased are made somewhat superfluous.
  5. Search. Have you ever had trouble finding a specific quote you wanted to reference? If you're like me, if after 10-45 minutes of looking, you decide to paraphrase instead, but because of the difficulty in finding the quote, you can't be sure where you originally read it. With traditional books, searching for these sorts of cues and quotes can be difficult. An integrated search feature allows Kindle users to search across all books loaded on the device.
  6. Notes and bookmarks. Users can take notes and bookmark important parts of any book they read, making it easier to come back and reference an especially poignant section.
  7. Crosses media sources. Users can read books, blogs or other news feeds as well as download newspapers and magazines.

What Sucks About Kindle

  1. High cost of entry. Just to get started reading, you have to shell out $400 - plus the cost of books. Seth says that he argued that books should be given away for free until adoption rates increase, and I can't argue with him ("You won't find me on Amazon's new book reader").
  2. Books cannot be shared. If you lend a book to someone, you at least get to read another book yourself. However, with the Kindle, if you want a friend to read a book, you have to encourage them to either buy it for themselves or you must lend them your own Kindle.
  3. Not significantly more portable. One of Kindle's chief selling points is that you can carry around a bunch of books ("literally" hundreds of pounds of books) with you inside of this little device. However, outside of the areas of study and research, there aren't many profitable applications for this feature. Most people only need one or two books at a time, which they can carry along nicely without forking over $400 for the device. At most, they'll save themselves a few pounds, not hundreds.
  4. High cost of replacement. If you lose or damage a book, you're out anywhere between $1 and $60 (depending on the book). If you lose or damage the Kindle, unless it's insured, you're out $400 (plus your entire library).

How Kindle Could be Better

  1. Enable audio and ability to listen in car. This would kill my need to buy a traditional book again, and would be well worth the cost. In fact, I'd pay three times as much for each book if the audio version were included, in spite of the difficulties above. Then I could listen to books on my commute and read and reference books elsewhere. I'd even repurchase the books I'd already bought just so I could listen and/or read on my own terms, in my own time.
  2. Find a niche and feed it. One of the things I hated about college was lugging around what seemed like a ton of books across a large campus. The Kindle could eliminate the need for students to strain their backs. Partner with colleges to provide textbooks on the Kindle, offer a student discount for the device, and let this audience be the early adopters. Once they become accustomed to using the device because of the comparative advantage it really does offer them, I wonder if they would ever buy another traditional book in their lives. The great thing about this strategy is that there are always more students coming in, so the audience can grow organically.
  3. Sell insurance. The high replacement cost for the device and for the media is a huge barrier. Unless they can lower the cost of the device to under $100, they will have difficulties getting people to adopt a behavior to solve a problem most people don't even believe they have.

One important thing to remember is that a book reader is not analogous to an iPod, so no one should make the mistake of drawing too close a comparison between the two devices. Music requires a listening device, while reading a book has traditionally required just a book - the only "reader" one needed was the education required to read and understand it.

What's more, listening to music is an enjoyable, passive activity. Reading a book, while often enjoyable and stimulating, is an attention hog.

Partially because of these differences, people are more inclined to want access to hundreds, if not thousands of songs at any time. The average person is much less likely to want access to hundreds or thousands of books at one time. Therefore, the advantage gained by upgrading from a portable CD player to an iPod is much more significant than "upgrading" from a book to a book reader.

To create penetration, Amazon must provide more value than people are already receiving. The benefits that are offered by the Kindle are too few for average people. While I applaud them for making huge strides, they've got a ways to go before most people will eagerly throw their money at Amazon for the privilege of using their device. - Cam Beck

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