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?