Kindling themselves out of the Market

kindleLast week Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, unveiled the Kindle 2 electronic reader. The new model mildly increases battery life, has a little more storage and is a little faster compared to the 2007 edition. Hardly a revolution. And at a price tag of $359 (€278) in the USA, the new owner has to be very motivated indeed, as he is only really purchasing a support for books and magazines he still has to buy form Amazon. Summed up like that, the Kindle has the makings of a disaster. Or is there something else going on?

When the Kindle was originally introduced in 2007, there were already a few ebook readers about, mostly just showing what electronic paper could look like – a screen without the backlit glare in your eyes, one which would be as tranquil on your eyes as ink on paper, or at least, sort of. Amazon’s reader was, and still is, a not so flashy gizmo with limited capabilities.

What makes it good, is that The Kindle allows people to download books or magazines on-the-go (using cellphone technology) from the Amazon database of 230 000 books. Add on to that the possibility to read newspapers, magazines and blogs and you have an all round reading tool in your hand. But, still, the Kindle has barely moved since release: it still has no coverage (US only, which is unbelievably restrictive for a travel companion), it is mono-lingual(!) although it can display foreign books and offers almost no side services (the worst is probably that there is no wifi). Surely this is all easy to beat by a competitor?

Consider the other corner: A 3-man company called Lexcycle has launched an application for book reading on the iPhone called Stanza. There are an estimated 35 million people walking around with an Apple iPhone or an iPod Touch, of which about a million have already downloaded the application (for free). Books can be currently be downloaded in 60 of the 75 countries in which the iPhone is sold and they offer the possibility of export to another platform (eg the Kindle or the Google Android phone). The Lexcylce approach seems a lot more promising than Amazon’s, not to mention that an iPhone is cheaper and filled to the rim with other amusing functions.

Consider these two platforms and the point of ebooks. An ebook is supposed to be for reading on-the-go. In a face-off, the Kindle, again, will fail. Even if reading is more pleasant on a Kindle than on a mobile phone, consider where this reading is taking place. In line at the post-office, in a crowded subway train, on a lunch break, in a cafe waiting for the friend to arrive. People already have the iPhone in their pocket, and a reader, such as Stanza, will grant people 15 or 20 minutes of reading at these dead times. That adds up to a lot of reading, even if it is in small bursts. The iPhone and the likes will easily dominate the electronic reading market – till someone designs some actually flexible, affordable electronic paper which can serve wider purposes than a reading-in-line iPhone.

Amazon has hinted that it will offer its book database to mobile users ‘in the near future’, but considering the speed of their innovations we should not expect much. As Amazon patiently waits for other companies to create and conquer the ebook market, Google recently made 1,5 million public domain books available for mobile users. That is already a lot of reading for a market with still plenty of growth potential, which will barely be scratched by Amazon.

The new Kindle is an expensive temporary product which distracts from the real development of ebook readers and a market for electronically delivered press. Hopefully, Apple or some other manufacturer will design a flexible electronic paper, and combine it with an iTunes-type press centre to make it useful. Producing electronic paper requires a vision of the future press market, and Amazon, like many big companies, shows itself incapable of leading. Basically Kindle is a half hearted experiment from a company which should know better. As far as I am concerned, their new Kindle can be shipped out with the old.

UPDATE (11 MAY 2009): Amazon releases yet another Kindle, the Kindle DX which is even more expensive than the previous one at $500. Nothing really worth mentioning, but you could read a sharp analysis by Jason Kincaid if you want to know more.

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