Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Amazon's Kindle: The iPod of E-books?

It's the gadget of the day: Amazon's homegrown Kindle, the latest attempt to make the e-book reader from quirky oddity into something for the mainstream. Will it fly this time time around? Amazon's got a long road ahead of it, but first appearances would seem to indicate that this is the best e-book reader to date.

Amazon is unabashedly looking to the iPod for inspiration, attempting to make a piece of hardware that needs minimal expertise to run and that ties specifically to its own store, in this case, Amazon.com, which will offer 88,000 book titles for sale at launch. Even better, the Kindle is designed to be usable sans computer. It connects directly to a special Sprint-powered cellular network called Whispernet (not Wi-Fi) and lets you download directly from the web. However, there are no additional monthly service fees for the privilege.

The big question with these devices is always the screen. Kindle uses the same display technology that the similar Sony Reader uses, called E-Ink. The screen looks as much like paper as electronic displays get; it also allows for exceptional battery life since, once a page is generated, it requires no additional power to keep it displayed.

But there's a dark side of Kindle, which is already drawing heaps of abuse for its design, which can charitably be described as heinously ugly. The vaguely trapezoidal gizmo with oddball keys certainly doesn't share any kinship with the elegant iPod, but iPod 1.0 was hardly the beauty it's become of late. I'm going to chalk it up as a first stab at a design, and I'm all but certain the 2008 version will look nothing like it.

Weighing just 10.3 ounces, the Kindle is lighter than most paperbacks, which should make extended reading no problem. You can store hundreds of titles on its built-in memory and add SD cards for additional room. Titles you buy ($10 for best sellers and new releases) are backed up on Amazon, so even if you have to delete one, you can always download it again later. And if books aren't your bag, the Kindle also does blogs, newspapers, and more (though for additional fees). There are also some very basic music and web browsing features.

So will Kindle fly? People who aren't complaining about the design will likely complain about the price. Even if you're saving $6 off the purchase of each book, it will take more than 60 purchases for the $399 Kindle to pay for itself. Consider also the Sony Reader, which has been a modest success: Sony claimed it was "exceeding expectations" and that e-book sales were outpacing music sales at its online store, as of January 2007. That said, who buys music from Sony's online store? Sony reportedly has a new, wireless Reader in the works, too, so there appear to be at least some legs in this market.

The jury's out on whether Kindle will really make an impact with consumers, but Amazon's launching it at the perfect time, and tying it to the world's largest bookstore is certainly a smart move. The price is the real trick: Many Amazon shoppers are loyal to the site because of its exceptional bargains, but $399 puts it at (or above) the price of most gaming consoles. So would you like an e-book reader or a Nintendo Wii underthe tree this year?