On Amazon’s Kindle 2, or, It’s Apple Circa 1999, Mr. Bezos, Not an iPhone 3G | iLounge Backstage

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On Amazon’s Kindle 2, or, It’s Apple Circa 1999, Mr. Bezos, Not an iPhone 3G

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Monday, February 9, 2009
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To be crystal clear up front: we love Amazon.com. It’s a fantastic store with great policies and generally very good prices. For our money, it’s quite possibly the most impressive retailer currently in existence. And we buy way more—digital music, electronics, and other stuff—every year from Amazon than we do from Apple.

We also really like the idea behind Amazon’s Kindle, the company’s original e-Book reader. The very concept of a device to replace printed books and magazines strikes us as smarter and more worthy of purchase with every passing day, and we will say with 100% certainty that we’d be willing to buy such a thing right now if it had the right form factor and features. As much as we enjoy reading the Sunday New York Times or the occasional magazine, we get tired of fetching these $5 stacks of paper out of their plastic delivery bags, carrying them around, and then discarding them section by section as we finish hunting for the parts that interest us. They’re generally not worth $5, and the paper they’re printed on is actually more to blame for that price than anything that’s inside. As anyone who recycles knows, the world would be better off without wasting all that paper and those plastic bags.

Amazon deserves some credit for what it has accomplished thus far with Kindle. We’ve used Kindles and know a couple of people who own them. The company’s decisions to go with an e-Ink screen and cellular wireless download features were really smart, if not strictly necessary, demonstrating that it is seriously trying to develop something convenient for its customers. These sorts of decisions are reasons that we feel that Kindle deserves all the success it has had to date. If it wasn’t for the fact that we hate the way things (books, magazines, the web) actually look on the screen, and the prior generation version’s various control issues, we might have considered buying one ourselves.

But isn’t that the real story of the Kindle project to date? Amazon held an event today to hype the announcement of Kindle 2, touting how thin and improved its second-generation device is over its clunky predecessor, yet when you get past the bullet points, does anyone actually believe that this thing is the future of electronic books and magazines? A low-res, black and white device with a bunch of buttons on its sides and a ton of front real estate dedicated to plastic and tiny keys? Is this the way that people want to read books? Magazines? The web? We liked Hypercard as much as the next guy—actually, more so because we actually created documents in it—but jeez, the whole dithered grayscale thing was hardly cool 20 years ago. Apple hasn’t used a 16-grayscale display like that since it discontinued the Newton in 1998. Amazon presents it on Kindle and Kindle 2 as if it’s a selling point, ignoring the fact that most of the content people consume these days is in… wait for it… color.

Some people will no doubt spend the next day or two transfixed by Amazon’s talking points, focusing on whether Kindle 2’s body represents enough of an improvement over the first Kindle to be an Apple-like product. Isn’t it exciting, they’re already saying, that the first Kindle’s weird angular edges are gone. And that Amazon put a metal back on it, like an iPod. Or that its 50-plus buttons look nicer. And as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos noted, it’s actually thinner than an iPhone 3G! After all of those changes, it might as well be an Apple device, right?

Of course not. Ten or twelve years ago, Apple might have released something like Kindle 2, but it’s not even in the ballpark of the type of device that Cupertino makes these days. You can round off the buttons and remove the original Kindle’s awkward scrolling mechanism, but that still leaves Kindle 2 with roughly 47 more buttons—the keyboard and some of the side buttons—than anything Apple would produce in 2009. And sure, Kindle 2 may be thinner than the iPhone 3G, a multimedia touchscreen cell phone, but it’s thicker than the iPod touch. Yeah, the one with the color multi-touch screen, Wi-Fi, and chips capable of performing everything from lossless music to widescreen video to impressive 3-D games. The one that, like Kindle 2, isn’t a cell phone.

Given that the current-generation, slim iPod touch hardware outperforms Kindle 2 in virtually every way save for screen size, isn’t it also a given that a larger Apple-developed Kindle competitor could be even thinner if it just kept the same hardware inside, adding only a bigger battery to power a bigger touchscreen for a longer period of time? And that if Apple did nothing more than this, with a quick and dirty rewrite to the OS X iPhone software to provide for a higher-resolution display, that it would blow Kindle 2 away? Color magazines, books, web pages, and oh yeah, tens of thousands of iPhone apps, accessible on a 6-7” display, all controlled by gestures and a virtual keyboard rather than a black and white screen with a bunch of buttons?

No matter how much sense such a quick and simple solution would make, Apple probably won’t do something so simple. It’s probably still mulling the issues relating to an iTunes Book and Magazine Store, locking down the ideal processors and interface to make a 7” device as smooth and useful as the 3.5” iPhone display was, and generally planning for what printed publications should look like five years from now, not trying to replicate how they looked 20 or 200 years ago. Our suspicion that Apple is working on something better would lead us to pass on Kindle 2, but if we have to keep waiting for Apple to get something on the market, who knows, maybe Amazon will win us over to Kindle 3. At the rate it’s going now, we’ll be done with print publications altogether soon enough, and as much as we love our iPhones, iPods, and MacBooks, none of them is or can completely become a replacement for books or magazines.

Readers, what do you think?

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Comments

1

I agree with everything you wrote here.  I also think $359 is way too much for a device that only does books (esp. one with such a primitive screen).  I don’t want one for the same reason I don’t want another mp3 player or portable gaming device now that I have an iPhone: convergence- I just want to carry one device.  I also don’t like the fact that you can’t bring your own content (I already own a lot of eBooks) and that content is locked to Kindle (would be nice if I could get my books in PDF or even text) because eventually Kindle is going to go away and then you’ll be left with a bunch of useless files.  But I’d be more likely to buy Kindle content if they release a Kindle iPhone app- at least that way I can use the device I already carry and I can keep my $359 to put towards the next iPhone.  Anyway I just can’t see choosing the Kindle over a 16 GB (or 32 GB) iPod Touch.

Posted by Dyvim on February 9, 2009 at 2:33 PM (PDT)

2

Excellent post Jeremy and i couldn’t agree more. Apple is not likely to be working on such a device at this time but there is no comparison. Your point about buttons, iPod Touch thickness and 32 bit color screens are perfectly valid and help bring home the fact that this isn’t a device that competes with even the interns at Apple Industrial Design Labs. No this is a device set out to fill a need and not designed to reinvent an industry.

Great backstage post as always.

Posted by Adam Jackson on February 9, 2009 at 2:38 PM (PDT)

3

Despite that it’s balck and white only - the Kindle’s E-Ink screen is easier on the eyes when reading large amounts of text (e.g. a 500 pg book) than the iPhone or iPod Touch. I think that the Kindle - tho far from perfect - fills a nitch that is unfilled by tablet PCs or iPhone type products. The Kindle (and it’s E-Ink screen) is all about reading books - and it does work pretty well if that’s what you you do with it.

Posted by Albert on February 9, 2009 at 2:39 PM (PDT)

4

I have to say that while I agree with some of the points here I think you’re not giving the Kindle enough credit.  I’ve been a fan of digital reading content for a lot of years now, having used Zinio for magazines, and most of the PC based book readers I have that none of those solutions kept me dedicated to digital ebook content.  Then came the Kindle, I’ve owned the first version since about 3 months after it was released and like the iPod for music, the stand alone device doesn’t sell me but the total package of the online store and the device works so well that it has changed the playing field from my perspective anyway. I’m not excited about the second version of the Kindle mostly because I was pretty happy with the first version.  I simply don’t see a multi-use device replacing the dedicated book reader in this case mostly because of the usage scenario required to make a digital book reader such a good book solution (i.e. digital ink, dedicated keys, size, etc.)  I’ll be interested in seeing how the books end up working on a iPhone device if that actually ships but I’m willing to bet it won’t touch the usability of the dedicated device.

Posted by Jim on February 9, 2009 at 2:58 PM (PDT)

5

I have some concerns. Mainly the proprietary Kindle format. My wife and her mother always trade books, and it’s hard to imagine not being able to do that any longer.  But, that said, I would love to own one. The lack of color bothers me not at all. I think color would be nice, but I can’t think when the last time was that I read a book that had any color apart from the cover. But, if the technology is there and the expense isn’t great, it could be a nice feature, but not a feature that would cause me to wait to purchase it.
I like the “What would Apple do?” ideas, but then the real question is, “What has Apple done?” Nothing. E-book readers are not new. Amazon just has made the biggest splash with theirs. It seems to be the most successful one to date. I’d like to see what Apple could do, but I would rather have a real device than an imaginary one. 
I’ve had an opportunity to play with Kindle version one, and I read e-books on my iPod Touch.  The Kindle has a far more pleasant reading experience, and better, too, than an actual book, in my opinion.  The keyboard could be better.  I don’t know about a touch screen, but I wish the keyboard would fold back or slide in.  While some of the Kindle functions make use of the keyboard, reading a book does not, and, since that is the main function of the device, having an ever-present keyboards does seem like a waste of space.
If I had the disposable income, I’d be ordering the Kindle 2.  There may be lots of room for improvement, but I would say that Amazon got more right then they got wrong. It’s high on my “toys I would like to have” list, but has never quite made it to “my next big purchase” status. I admit that an Apple version could change that, but I expect I’ll end up buying a Kindle before Apple ever gets around to producing something comparable.

Posted by Rob E. on February 9, 2009 at 3:11 PM (PDT)

6

I think E-Ink screens are fabulous and that the market for dedicated e-reader devices will only grow. And I believe color screens will come soon. However, I’m very disappointed in the almost entirely closed system Amazon has created. To be specific: I’d like to replace my entire paper book collection today, but I can’t do it with a Kindle. First, I can’t read e-books purchased through Amazon on anything but a Kindle (unless I hack off the DRM). Next, they don’t support .epub or any other format except .mobi and make it a chore to read my personal material on a Kindle (why do I have to email Kindle my personal documents to Amazon to read them on a device I purchased?). If Amazon decides to get out of the e-reader business, the book collection I rebuilt electronically is toast. Call me old fashioned, but once I buy something, it’s mine. As long as Amazon books have DRM and they don’t allow an equivalent to .mp3 which can travel between e-readers, their approach is stupid. No doubt it’s both the major publishers and Amazon who want the DRM. However, content yearns to be “free” and eventually it will find a way, even if it has to be around Amazon.

Jeremy I also regret that Apple has not entered this market.

Posted by Tom on February 9, 2009 at 3:32 PM (PDT)

7

Three thoughts…

1. e-ink is different than a typical mobile device’s screen. This is both good and bad - good for reading in light, good for battery life. But it’s bad for low light situations, and obviously color is currently out of the question.

2. Jobs said a year or two ago that he wouldn’t get into ebooks, that folks don’t read. Then again, he also said there’d be no color or flash-based iPods…

3. Lastly, Amazon told the NY Times a few days ago that they’ll be bringing Kindle books to mobile phones. I assume the iPhone will be one of those devices. So it may not matter what Apple’s intentions are at this point.

Posted by DaveZatz on February 9, 2009 at 4:54 PM (PDT)

8

I don’t get why everyone seems so puzzled or mortified by the e-ink screen on the Kindle.  The entire point of e-ink is to give a paper like usability with a variable display device.  Yes it has 16 shades of grey, but so does your average book (more or less haha).  It does its purpose and does it very well.  I do not enjoy trying to read a book on my laptop or my monitor as it is not the same “book” like experience and is uncomfortable on the eyes for long periods.

Sure when they bring along a color e-ink screen it will be cool for e-magazine like displays.  There seems to be confusion where people look at a Kindle and try to see a tablet computer.

The second thing is the closed system.  I dislike my DRM as much as the next person and in fact I’d rather “rent” most books ala library than buy them as I usually only read them once, but Amazon has a great selection and the whole system works very well.  I rarely add outside content (except the occasional uncopyrighted works).  I would enjoy being able to add my documents and reference books, but that would require an 8.5x11” geared screen rather than one designed for smaller sized books.

What makes the Kindle so great are the paper experience from e-ink and the huge library combined with their delivery system, virtual bookshelf and large selection.

What makes it a difficult adoption for most folks is the higher cost of getting on board.  In fact this makes them even more like Apple 1999 and 2009 wink.  (Fact: and I loooooves me some Apple)

Posted by Jim E on February 9, 2009 at 7:52 PM (PDT)

9

Although most of the points you made are right I wouldn’t dismiss this product that fast.

Amazon’s targeting a completely different market than Apple.
Apple stands for audio-visual experience and fun, not so much as sitting down with a book and reading it yourself.
— I can’t even remember how many audio books I have listened to on my iPod/iPhone. —

What I like about the kindle is the idea of getting your books and especially magazines anywhere you want, making one independent from any wifi hotspot. Also the fact that you don’t have to pay for the connection itself, or so it seems.

I can’t understand why Amazon charges for the download of every tinsy bit of extra content. That’s not very innovative not transparent.

What I understand — albeit dislike — is why you can’t transfer PDFs and other files yourself. Amazon would invite people to download PDF-books off the web and read them on their device.
It would be like making it possible to connect the iPod to a different music library application, so that person isn’t confronted with iTunes Store every day…

This in fact kills the kindle for me, because I would like to use it in university and not only for recreational purposes.
I’ll be holding out for a different reader, most likely the “Plastic Logic eReader” since it has a bigger display and is open to other formats.

As for the design of the kindle 2?
Well, I kind of like how it looks now, but I think it is boring to be honest. It lacks the bold cutting edge design of the first kindle (pun intended) and I’d have expected more from Amazon after such a long time.

Posted by mangochutney on February 10, 2009 at 1:48 AM (PDT)

10

In 1984 I purchased my first Mac and have been a devoted consumer of Apple’s products ever since. I do check out competing manufacturers products, but Apple has always been way ahead of the curve and in a class of its own. I like to listen to the radio and I like to listen to music but I do NOT like audiobooks. I read a lot of content on my iPhone (love Instapaper and the NYTimes app is really good). eReader and Stanza are both very good for reading books but eReader has a very limited selection and they charge too much for the books. Apple doesn’t need to develop a device for reading but an iTunes Book and Magazine Store would make my day and/or Amazon should expand its market and develop an iPhone app for consumers like me.

Posted by Ellen on February 10, 2009 at 5:53 AM (PDT)

11

I find this article quite naive. PDA-style devices have obviously been around in various forms for more than a decade, from the Newton through the Pilot through today’s smartphones with the iPhone on top. All were capable of displaying the text-only material comprising most popular books and which consumes very little memory. If the only required innovation were a business model and a DRM mechanism, the problem would have been solved long ago.

The e-ink screen is the key to the device, not an aspect to be knocked and compared with smartphone screens. There’s a reason why every electronic book uses one. First, reflective displays are far easier on the eye when reading for long periods of time, the way the book genre is intended to be enjoyed. Second, the displays consume no power except when changing content. This is what allows a device like the Kindle 2 to go two full weeks without a charge. A larger battery in an iPhone might extend lifetime to a full day, but nowhere near two weeks.

E-books aren’t intended to be general-purpose display devices. Although they will read blogs and some web content, these functions are supplementary to the main goal of reading printed pages in long form, with eye comfort and battery life as the very highest priorities.

This is why many people who already own traditional color LCD-based devices nevertheless give glowing reviews to the Kindle and bring one along when they travel.

Posted by David on February 10, 2009 at 10:05 AM (PDT)

12

It’s great to see all the comments on this topic, and thanks to everyone for your thoughts so far—keep them coming.

One of the critical points that seems to be dividing readers is the distinction between a device that is merely for displaying text and black and white book content, versus one that happens to be capable of those things, but also does much more.

Kindle and Kindle 2 are, by virtue of their screens, locked largely into the former category. They were clearly designed for books, and though they may offer access to newspapers, magazines, and the web, they are trapped in a decade-old conception of such things; as just one example, the New York Times (once, the “Gray Lady”) was one of the last newspapers to hold off on adding color to its pages, but adopted a color front page in October of 1997. If you want nothing more than to read the text of articles, books, and so on, Kindle’s screen is fine. But can a device really claim to offer “top newspapers, magazines, and blogs” if it renders their content in 16 shades of gray?

Change the screen technology to a color display and a major part of the issue is solved—at least, for many users. Suddenly, the device can replicate magazines, books with color (think art, photography, and so on), and modern newspapers. Add a good enough chipset and you can display today’s New York Times main web page, complete with animations and videos. And so on. No Apple pocket product achieves all this yet, but there’s no doubt that even the $229 iPod touch has a better chance of properly rendering a modern magazine (see examples) or web site than the $359 Kindle.

Ultimately, the question—and the point of this Backstage entry—is not whether Kindle is a fine device for people who just want a way to read the text from books while they’re on the road. The reported sales of the first-generation Kindle, which may be too high given that Amazon has not confirmed them, suggest that there are perhaps 500,000 people who bought into Kindle’s vision. Rather, the question is whether such a device, by virtue of its screen, interface, and design, is really worthy of the “it’s like an Apple product!” hype. Amazon seems to think so, but our editors (and apparently, quite a few readers) collectively feel otherwise.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on February 10, 2009 at 12:47 PM (PDT)

13

Well, it’s an impressive device that provides a new and user-friendly way to access your collection, while at same time it’s completely locked down and seems to be missing key features that it seems like would have been included by default.  Sounds pretty “Apple-like” to me. wink
I definitely see your point about color.  I agree that it would open up the device to a lot more content.  But I wouldn’t say that it means that the iPod Touch/iPhone would be a better platform or even a jumping off point for a better platform.  It seems that the Kindle has two things going for it that enables it to get people to convert: Its screen size is comparable to many books (and the device isn’t much bigger), and the “e-ink” technology makes it much easier on the eyes.  You could make a bigger iPod Touch, but it still wouldn’t have the readability of the Kindle. I don’t know what it is exactly that makes the Kindle easier on the eyes, but it simply is, and without duplicating that technology, I don’t think any other book reader would stand a chance.  And I don’t know if it’s a technological hurdle to make the e-ink in color, or if it’s simply choice made to keep production costs down or simplify programming.  But I wouldn’t consider it an improvement to change to a more standard type of screen in order to get color.  The Kindle is a device to appeal to people who spend some serious time with their books, and those people are not going to jump to a device that adds color (or a touch screen) at the expense of long-term readability.
An iPod Touch, with a screen the size of a Kindle’s screen, and with that same e-ink readability may well be able to take over the Kindle’s market, but I do believe that the screen and the e-book delivery method are key to the Kindle’s success.  The delivery method is something I know Apple could handle, but I don’t know about the screen.
Whether or not you consider the Kindle “Apple-like” will probably depend on what you mean by “Apple-like.” I think the Kindle takes an existing technology concept and makes it viable for perhaps the first time (I know there are other e-readers, but they just missed the mark somewhere) and improves the concept as well.  I consider that very “Apple-like.”  But if by “Apple-Like” you mean that it’s done in the way that Apple would do it, then, no.  The “Apple level” of form and function were not there, at least not in Generation 1.  The existence of “experimental features” does not strike me as something Apple would do, either.  Apple likes to get everything working as perfectly as possible before they let you see it.  The idea that they would throw something out there that wasn’t fully realized and simply call it “experimental” is not what I would ever expect of an Apple product. In that way that Kindle is not Apple-like.  The Kindle v.1 in its entire design and execution feels like a beta version, as if they said, “We’ve got it good enough to see if there’s interest.  We can release this and keep polishing.”  That does not strike me as something Apple would do.  But that is not to say that I’m critical of Amazon taking that route.  I like that we saw the product sooner than later, but it does not strike me as the Apple way.

Posted by Rob E. on February 11, 2009 at 2:13 PM (PDT)

14

I’ve just started buying books on my iPhone through the Iceberg offerings, which lists each book as a separate app. Just my preference, the other readers are fine as well. Strangely enough, I already own hard copies of the books I installed on my iPhone. Wouldn’t it be a great idea if book publishers offered you the option to download an e-book version of their book when you buy the hard copy—like when you get the free digital version of a movie when you buy a DVD? Sometimes when you travel or commute, you don’t want to lug a huge novel or another device on top of everything else, but you don’t want to drop what you’re reading. Having the digital option means you can take it with you, but still have the traditional book at home, and best of all—you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on another device.

Posted by Nancy B. on February 12, 2009 at 4:49 AM (PDT)

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