With a front page letter on Amazon’s site from Jeff Bezos and a New York press conference, Amazon officially debuted Kindle today. With the launch, they are putting answer to some of the questions that hovered ahead of the e-book reader’s launch. Opinions are now flying about the quality of the interface, about the depth of available content, and even, Amazon’s long term goals. A few quick takes:
More PC than Mac, more Zune than iPod, the Kindle is an ergonomic and functional offering but it doesn’t look slick. It’s small and light. The display from E Ink is easy to read but monochrome. Taken as a whole, Kindle doesn’t have the magical kind of design that draws second looks or makes it iconic. For version 1.0, this is not a device destined for beauty pageants. But then, in the words of Bezos, it’s not really a device at all so maybe that characterization is irrelevant. Amazon’s CEO instead characterized Kindle as a service. It’s about the wireless connectivity, about the portability of Amazon’s store. That may be true, but the look of the product is going to help sell it, or not. Kindle could use a little more polish in that department.
That polish will likely come in future versions. This is, after all, Amazon’s first commercial product launch and Version 1.0 at that. Future models of Kindle may bring improvements like a color screen (e-Ink is testing color and it could be available for future products) or even a touch screen (iRex Technologies already offers an eBook with one).
The first iPod was far removed from the devices Apple now sells. In some regards, that’s probably an appropriate benchmark to keep in mind. Apple improved and learned with each successive iteration of their product. Amazon may do the same with Kindle.
Kindle has two primary means of connecting. Option one is a high speed cellular connection over the Sprint EVDO network (EVDO stands for Evolution-Data Optimized). Amazon’s branded this as Amazon WhisperNet and put it at the core of Kindle’s plan. WhisperNet is designed for ease of use. Flip a switch and Kindle connects or disconnects. There’s no searching for WiFi hotspots or setting up wireless access. Via WhisperNet, Kindle can seamlessly and easily connect even the most technically challenged to the Amazon store.
There are no charges to browse or shop at Amazon. Email and other services over Whispernet will apparently cost 10cents a message to pay for bandwidth. Accessing a PC is also possible via an onboard USB connection.
Missing from Kindle is a WiFi antenna. That’s understandable given the emphasis on ease of use, and the possible engineering challenges of adding it, but a WiFi option would make Kindle a more universal tool. It’s not that WhisperNet isn’t capable, but rather the ability to freely access home networks brings a unique value. Like UMA on a cell phone, WiFi is a nice option to have.
Kindle has a modest 180MB of user-available memory. Amazon estimates this will yield about 200 book or newspaper files. If owners add MP3 files (which Kindle can handle provided they are DRM-Free), that memory allotment will disappear quickly. Amazon offsets the limitation somewhat by keeping a record of purchased content in a Media Library online. Through it, customers can re-download content they’ve previously purchased anytime, thereby removing the need to keep archival copies on Kindle. Still, a larger on board storage capacity would make Kindle more multi-use. An SD Card slot allowing user upgrades is only a token solution. Storage today is relatively cheap. Finding a way to incorporate more into Kindle’s design footprint would have been nice.
Content is where Kindle, and Amazon’s well established published relationships, truly shine. At release the Kindle store has more than 89k books including a significant majority of the current New York Times Best Seller’s List. Top global newspapers and magazines as well as more than 250 blogs are also available as custom formatted Kindle subscriptions.
Other blogs not included, like Metue, can be read freely through Kindle’s browser but they may render poorly or be difficult to read. (Kindle’s browser is something akin to viewing content on a cell phone. Many sites will not appear properly, monochrome screen notwithstanding.)
The one content question that may linger for some is pricing. eBooks look reasonable. But $6 to $15 a month in subscription fees for newspapers, or a few dollars a month for blogs that are otherwise free and easily accessible may put off some customers.
It’s also unclear at launch of it Kindle will offer any kind of API or Software Developer Kit to allow additional bloggers to create custom formatted content for Kindle. Given the subscription fee’s being charged for the currently selected list of blogs, it’s unlikely that will happen soon. If I were able to offer a Kindl-ized version of my content freely, it would risk undercutting the blog relationships Amazon has so far established. Further, Kindle formatting is not appropriate (as of yet) for ad-supported content. Accordingly, a blogger offering free Kindlized content could risk undercutting any revenue they’d otherwise draw from advertising on their own sites.
•The Initial Impression
Is Kindle the kind of polarizing, high-style, must-have product that could shape or change an industry? Not yet, or not now. Jeff Bezos might brush that off. Per his comments it’s less about the device then what it supports. He said that "once you add that wireless radio and put a store on the device it’s not really a device anymore."
I disagree. Kindle is part of a service, sure, but to access it, you have to buy the $400 device first. Kindle is both. Accordingly, it is warranted to review Kindle under both categories.
As a service, it’s intriguing. It will fit well alongside Amazon’s music store and Unbox video offerings. On the negative, questions will linger as to how Amazon’s proprietary DRM standard will be received, or how Kindle will handle open book format standards.
As a device? Kindle’s not bad for a beta; and that is largely what it is. It’s version 1.0. There are some positives and some negatives. Plenty of room to improve.
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