I used to write a blog about ebooks - some of you may remember eBook Culture (alas I let the domain name slip and so it was gobbled up by a squatter). Anyway, as a lover of both books and the Web, the vision of an Internet-connected eBook Reader has been one of my obsessions over the years. And now it looks like Amazon has, finally, taken the always-nascent eBook industry to the next level. This week, wrote Steve Levy in a rapturous article in Newsweek, Amazon will release the Kindle - an e-reader that uses E Ink and will have Internet connectivity. The latter point is what will differentiate the Kindle from its chief competitor currently, the Sony eReader that was launched in 2006.
Kindle image via Engadget
Levy wrote in Newsweek that the Kindle " will change the way readers read, writers write and publishers publish." He unleashes other doozies of hyperbole too: "the iPod of reading" and "the first 'always-on' book".
The Kindle will cost USD399, which is $100 more than the Sony eReader. But the wireless Internet connectivity easily makes the increased price worth it. The wireless is via a system called Whispernet - which according to Newsweek is based on the EVDO broadband service offered by cell-phone carriers, allowing it to work anywhere and not just Wi-Fi hotspots. Here's Levy's description of what the device looks and feels like:
"It weighs but 10.3 ounces, and unlike a laptop computer it does not run hot or make intrusive beeps. A reading device must be sharp and durable, Bezos says, and with the use of E Ink, a breakthrough technology of several years ago that mimes the clarity of a printed book, the Kindle's six-inch screen posts readable pages. The battery has to last for a while, he adds, since there's nothing sadder than a book you can't read because of electile dysfunction. (The Kindle gets as many as 30 hours of reading on a charge, and recharges in two hours.)"
The Kindle will be able to hold 200 books, with new releases being offered for just $9.99. Also, apparently blogs will be part of the service - at a cost of either 99 cents or $1.99 a month per blog. Matthew Ingram was appalled that he'd have to pay. I'm awaiting details on this, because it sounds like premium content deals have been made with the likes of paidcontent.org. Either that or Amazon will try to make money from bundling feeds. It may be attractive to mainstream people who haven't gotten into RSS Readers yet, we'll have to wait and see. Like Matthew, I wouldn't pay unless there is a 'premium' offering (in which case I would certainly consider paying).
Issues: 'Ugliness", DRM, Pricing
There is some debate about whether the Kindle is as beautiful as an ipod. David Rothman, who has been blogging about eBooks for much longer than me, says it's ugly. And judging from the picture above, it doesn't look like something you'd cuddle up with in bed!
David also notes the DRM issues - but then you'd have to say that Steve Jobs managed to circumvent that easily enough with the iPod. Amazon has, according to Newsweek, already gotten all the major book publishers on board. As with the iPod, there are mutterings from publishers about the low pricing. But long term I would expect Amazon to do exactly as Apple did and use their market muscle to easily push forward with the low pricing and DRM.
Another issue that David Rothman brings up could be the one that Amazon gets unstuck on: formats. This is a hobby horse of David, as he is a fierce advocate for an open ebook standard. He asks:
"Will Amazon's Kindle work in the future with .epub files, or will Amazon thumb its nose at the IDPF, publishers and us e-book readers who are sick, sick, sick of eBabel-all those clashing e-book formats."
That's an as yet unanswered question that we'll track.
Books as a Service
What is most interesting though is how Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, is positioning Kindle in relation to the e-commerce bohemoth. Yet again we hear the word "service" being conjured up: "This isn't a device, it's a service", Bezos said in Newsweek. The Kindle is being seen as "an extension of the familiar Amazon store". In other words, the Kindle is shaping up as a highly strategic move by Amazon. Probably much more important to its future business than the Web Services stack that has gotten so much (deserved) hype over the past year. Because the Kindle is literally going to change Amazon's core business model. This will take years to play out, but it all comes down to the dream that eBook fans have held for years: that books delivered electronically can offer much more flexibility, richness, search, communities, etc etc. But it all depends on having a suitable eReader device, which Amazon now claims it has created.
When I wrote my 'goodbye' post for the blog eBook Culture in November 2004 (yikes, is it 3 years since then already!), I noted my key themes in the eBook world: eBooks as a practice, not an object; eBooks and social networking; Remix culture (of textual content, in this case); and finding out what the various "jobs" of eBooks are in different contexts.
eBook Culture logo, circa 2004
I can't wait to get the Amazon Kindle, which must be a good sign that Amazon is on the right track! ;-) I think Amazon will overcome the issues that David Rothman and others have raised - they have to, because the eBook industry needs an iPod-like device and the support of a heavyweight like Amazon to finally get traction. It has to happen with the Kindle, surely. Then we can get to exploring new business models and read/write methods of book-writing.