Amazon’s Kindle: Are you paying $399 for a distribution channel?

UPDATE: Amazon has added several kindle areas since I posted (including a user guide ironically as a PDF which isn’t supported by the kindle) that make me admittedly eat some (but not all) of these words. Gizmodo has a good writeup, snaps and a Q&A session. Note to self: wait two hours before posting an opinion piece.

Amazon has officially announced their “revolutionary” electronic-paper device called “kindle.” But is this a device you’ll pay $399 for in order to have the privilege of buying products with little or no capability to have it deliver what you might actually want to read? Is the revolutionary aspect a more streamlined way of distributing printed material or a breakthrough way of reading content?

I’m going to reserve judgement until I can spend face-time with kindle and, most importantly, understand EXACTLY what that USB cable can do that’s packed in with the kindle reader. But after reading the Newsweek article, various bloggers, watching the videos on Amazon and comparing what this device does vs. the Sony Reader (which I’ve used extensively) or all the others currently shipping,  there is no question that Amazon has absolutely hit the sweet spot of what a device like this can achieve. It’s likely I’ll buy one but I have deep and profound reservations.

Is hitting the sweet spot enough? Can it overcome the inevitable show-stopper realization that will come when people realize, “Hey, wait a minute! I have to PAY to get my own content on the device or read blogs!?!”  Even though any of us in technology understand the limitations of displays like this (they don’t do color yet; battery life requires tradeoffs in writing the screen once vs. multiple times per second for videos and animations) I think people will see no color, no audio, no animation, no video as severe, possibly deal-killer limitations.

I’ve been wrong before and what leans me to some level of success with this device is imaging myself carrying around this tiny device instead of schlepping books, magazines, newspapers and more with me as I travel. Same goes with my bride who travels extensively and is always carrying around a bag with her “reading heap”.

What about your own content? If you’re like me, I often have PDF’s or .doc’s sitting on my laptop (in my “READING” folder) and I often intend to pull them up and read when I get a chance. I’m always aware of the rapidly diminishing battery and thus feel a constant sense of urgency around reading electronically. This sense of angst would disappear with a device with “charging every other day if wireless is on” or “go several days without a charge if wireless is off” as the kindle purports to do.

Here;s the kicker: If you want your own Word .doc or PDF on the device, you have to “pay a small fee” as Amazon puts it to be able to email it to yourself, though I can;t find anywhere what that small fee is. While I understand that someone has to pay for “Whispernet” (the EVDO wireless service at the heart of the content distribution for this device) and that this payment comes out of the gross margin of a sale, will I be able to connect it via USB and dump whatever I want on it?

Kindle is NOT intended to be a generalized computing device and Amazon has undoubtedly looked at this category from hundreds of directions before releasing it, I wonder about the utility of paying $399 for something I can;t really use if I;m not willing to pay and pay and pay for the stuff appearing on it, even if the amazing array of content choices — pretty inexpensive ones to boot — make it incredibly compelling to own.

These are the same reasons I’m now bored with my iPhone. It’s still an incredible device, but it;s not a generalized computing device and the command-n-control of what can run on it — rather than what others can build that I want to use on it — disturbs me and has ultimately cooled my ardor for these sorts of targeted devices (and has compelled me to leverage what hackers have created to add applications to the iPhone).

Why do I only get Amazon’s pre-authorized list of blogs? (They show 308 at this time). When they say on their page, “Get blogs wirelessly delivered to your Kindle for as little as $.99 per month.” that is PER BLOG. If this is a distribution device that is only intended for publishers willing to pay to slide their content in to this new distribution channel, it will fail or will materially reduce attention paid to new media (e.g., blogs). I initially burst out laughing when I looked at the list of blogs as there is NO WAY I’d pay $.99 per month for ANY of them!

This is exactly what happened to podcasting when Apple buried access to the podcast directory and had on the front page major, traditional media “podcast” releases rather than those of us building audiences. Apple didn’t make any money on podcasts so they made access more abstract and difficult in iTunes. As a result, podcasting is waning as a category.

Speaking of Apple and their touch devices (iPhone, iPod Touch) as well as the patent they took out on touch technology, I’m wondering what a general computing device — that’s a touch tablet with full customization capabilities and color — might do to do an end-run-around what Amazon just introduced.

Speaking of Apple and their touch devices (iPhone, iPod Touch) as well as the patent they took out on touch technology, I’m wondering what a general computing device — that’s a touch tablet with full customization capabilities and color — might do to do an end-run-around what Amazon just introduced.

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5 Comments

  1. PXLated on November 19, 2007 at 11:28 am

    It sure got hit by the ugly stick. Zune anyone?
    With the content costs involved, they should give the thing away.



  2. kcmarshall on November 19, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Steve,

    I think some of your questions are answered in the User Guide. Chapter 8, “Kindle and Your Computer” talks about transferring files over USB to the Kindle or (more likely) the installed SD card. The supported file formats are:
    “Kindle (.AZW)
    Text (.TXT)
    Unprotected Mobipocket (.MOBI, .PRC)
    Audible (.AA)
    MP3 (.MP3)”

    Section 8.3 talks about converting other file formats to Kindle format. Basically you email files to an Amazon service and they get converted and sent back. There is a “small fee” to transfer converted files directly to the Kindle over wireless but they can be returned via email for free.

    Not sure this is a perfect device but the expenses mostly appear to buy you convenience rather than basic functionality. I can imagine transferring my own PDFs & MP3s frequently – not sure I’d buy a lot of Kindle-formatted content.

    Kevin



  3. Steve Borsch on November 19, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    @Kevin: Glad you located that user guide. I just read it and now would modify my comments. I didn’t find this at launch so perhaps several areas were added throughout the morning?

    PDF is conspicuously absent as are other audio file formats. Still, there is a lot here and the device looks promising.



  4. jd on November 19, 2007 at 5:23 pm

    Steve,

    This looks like a classic disruptive product in my view. By definition, disruptive technologies don’t seek to do everything – in other words it is not a computer or pda replacement. What it disrupts is the book and magazine and their corresponding distribution channels. I can already read blogs and documents on my iPhone and laptop. I don’t need a device for that. But I also carry around three or four books and several magazines at a time in my brief case plus get a package from Amazon once or twice a week. Would I pay $399 for a device that allows me to buy books for 50% less than I pay now when I read 20 to 25 books a year. Absolutely. Now I don’t have to store books all over my house. I can annotate on the electronic version. Plus it all comes from a trusted brand who has quite a bit of leverage in the publishing business. Disruptive products just have to be good enough at one or two things. This product does in my opinion. I’m ordering one today.



  5. Michael Long on November 19, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    I suspect that the $0.99 fee helps pay for the connection charges needed to maintain daily access to the blog, as there’re no other subscription fees involved.



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