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Amazons Surprise: Kindle eBook To Unveil Monday

kindle launchIt was supposedly due in October.  That deadline came and went.  Now, still in time for the holidays, here comes Kindle.

Amazon’s much speculated digital book reader will debut Monday at an event to be held at the Union Square W Hotel in New York City.

Jeff Bezos will be on hand to introduce the product.  A few celebrity endorsements are likely on track as well.  Kindle will be Amazon’s first foray into an in-house brand of consumer electronics. 

Vaunted as a competitor to Sony’s Reader, the Kindle portable book reader was built with similar easy-on-the-eyes display technology from E Ink.  Like the new iPod Touch, it will be equipped with WiFi access to directly buy and download books from Amazon’s digital store.   The image from early FCC filings suggests it will also have an onboard keyboard and a possible backlight for nighttime viewing. Expectations are Kindle will retail for around $399.

The question is: will Kindle, or e-Books in general, catch on with consumers.  Today, the market for e-Books is conservatively estimated at less than $30m.  That’s small by any measure but especially as a fraction of the near $35b the book publishing industry rakes in annually.  Some think the small share is consequence of previously available technology.  They predict an iPod equivalent digital book appliance, something sexy in design, intelligent and well thought out in functionality, will be a catalyst to bring the publishing industry online just as the iPod did the music industry.  If they’re right, eBooks will explode and take on an increasingly relevant place.

In Amazon’s dream, the Kindle will be the iPod of books.  It will be that sexy, well designed product that avid readers won’t want to live without.  

It’s difficult to speculate pre-launch if Kindle has that potential   For one thing, books are a different animal than music.   The music experience is somewhat format agnostic.  Whether it’s played over the radio, via LP’s, or on tapes or CD’s, it’s largely the same end experience to listen.   But books, books we’re used to holding a certain way, to turning pages, to seeing covers.   Reading a book is both a tactile and visual experience; something culturally, and psychologically, we’re accustomed to.  A counterpoint argument suggests consumers may not be as willing to modernize or adapt.  

When Sony introduced their reader in 2006, they shared a similar dream.  In Sony’s vision, the Reader, was going to be the disruptive technology that changed the industry. So far, with sales numbers as a measuring stick, that dream hasn’t been realized.  To Sony’s credit, however, the Reader’s lack of widespread adoption isn’t for lack of technological innovation. 

Before Sony’s entry into the market eBook technology was severely lacking.  On early efforts like RocketBook (Nuvomedia) displays were difficult on the eyes.  There was limited title availability.  Arguably most significant, the appliances were awkward to use.   The Sony product changed that.  The Reader’s screen is easy to read.  Simple black words against a white page.  The interface is intuitive and functional.  For titles, more than 20k are in the library for purchase.  Thanks to the open e-book standard,  a wide slate of public domain titles can also be found from Google’s book project or online book archiving efforts. (Amazon has been archiving scanning rare book titles too).   Even the battery, an issue on many early generation consumer products, is ok.  It’s powerful enough to turn the equivalent of 7,500 pages. All that, but no great success for Sony

Compared to the Reader, Kindle appears evolutionary.  Its keyboard and WiFi tools add the ability to easily browse the web or possibly send email/text messages (but the E Ink screen has its limitations. It is not well suited for graphics).

Other advantages: the backlight (if included) gives the product a wider range of use.    Amazon also reportedly assembled even more titles.  They are said to go beyond books to also include newspaper and magazine content (via agreements with as many as 100 newspaper publishers).  These certainly expand the possibilities. Will that be enough?

Will an Apple-esque launch and marketing campaign make the difference?  Amazon hopes so. They’ve reportedly been studying Apple’s tactics.  I wouldn’t put it past them to even call Steve Jobs for some tips.  I have to wonder, though, back to the first question, even with all the bells and whistles, are book readers ready to adapt?

Kindle has another potential issue too.   The product appears built around a proprietary standard of e-Books called Mobipocket that Amazon acquired in 2005.  Echoing the music industry, this choice means books bought for Kindle won’t play on Sony’s Reader, or anywhere else.   On one level, that makes perfect sense. Amazon wants to sell e-books, not try and draw profits hardware.  It’s recurring revenue and higher margins.  The one time sale of hardware is merely a conduit, maybe even a loss leader.  By using a standard that sends all Kindle book buyers through Amazon, they ensure they are positioned where the money is.    

The counterpoint is to question whether the choice to force the adoption/acceptance of a proprietary standard will influence sales.  It’s a debate “eerily parallel” to DRM discussions in the music industry.  There, history shows it can be either a highly profitable move (Apple) or an ill advised gamble (the rest of the music industry).   

There’s no certainty.  At the least, proprietary standards need to be best in breed and, more importantly highly desirable, to survive.  The iPod (and its Fairplay encryption) was able to meet those criteria.  A graveyard of failed (or little used) technologies is littered with corpses of other efforts that didn’t.  Headstones are engraved for Beta Max and Sony’s ATRAC compression standard.  Will Mobipocket warrant one?

Or will Kindle be good enough?  Will retailers and publishers digitize their wares in both the portable open e-book standard and Mobipocket?  (Random house expects 6500 e-Books by 2008. Barnes and Noble plans to begin selling e-Books through their website within the next year to eighteen months.

Come Monday, answers will start to appear.


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