Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Looks like Amazon is taking a stab at selling a new and improved e-book, called Kindle. It looks very cool -- the two big selling points are its size (about the size and weight of a paperback) and its readability (no backlighting, very easy on the eyes). The fact that you can get your reading materials (not just books, but magazines and books as well) wirelessly via free data connections is really cool as well.

That being said, at $400 I think it’s at way too high a price point, especially since that only gets you the reader (for that price they could at least throw in a couple of free downloads!). For $400 it's possible to get a laptop that can do all the things that Kindle can do, and then some. In essence, you're trading the versatility of a laptop for the size and readability of the Kindle. Apple showed with the iPod that it's possible to charge a premium for size, but the iPod offers features that are comparable, not inferior, to the competition.

There's also the risk that the market for these devices doesn't develop, so you've put a good chunk of money down for an item that won't be supported in the future (this wasn't such a risk in the early days of portable mp3 players, since mp3s were already being made and used en masse by the time portable players showed up). Then you have to pay for the content. At $10/book, the price is about the same as for a paperback, except you can't share it or sell it. There are also monthly subscriptions available, e.g., $0.99 for blogsites, and more for magazine and newspaper subscriptions, though the content for almost all of these subscriptions is already available for free online (I believe it actually costs more for the Kindle version of the Washington Post than the paper version does, without the coupons!).

The fact that Amazon is also using a proprietary file system is also troubling. Apparently it's possible to convert pdf files (the format previous e-books have used, and the standard for home computing) to a version that can be read with the Kindle, but why should you have to?

So I guess I'm pretty skeptical that sales of Kindle will be able to catch fire. I do, however, think that they could make it work in one of two ways.

The first way would be to, in addition to lowering the price of the unit, ditch the per item approach and follow the music subscription approach -- have a $14.99/month (or something like that) subscription to unlimited content that's tied to the particular device, and whose access is contingent on maintaining one’s subscription. I admit that I have no idea how such an approach can work as far as splitting the subscription fee among all the authors and publishers whose works would be used, but I'm looking at it from the consumer side, and this seems like a service that could have some appeal.

Another way that it could succeed is if they're able to make all textbooks available (something that doesn't appear to be the case right now). Given how much a semester's worth of books weigh (and cost), college students would be delighted to have access to a light (and hopefully more affordable) way to have all their books. And once college students have the device, they could conclude that purchasing additional reading material wouldn't be such a big deal, particularly if they grow to appreciate the format.

It should be interesting to see if the Kindle takes off. I think it can, but not unless Amazon makes some significant changes.