Amazon Kindle: Right Questions, Wrong Answer?

What is an ebook? Who sells them? Who buys them? Why do they buy them? How many ebooks does a typical buyer purchase? How do we motivate a reader to buy ebooks? How do we motivate a reader to buy more ebooks? What price makes sense? What do ebook readers use to read ebooks? Is snazzy technology the driver for ebook sales?

Sure, we all want to make money at what we do, don’t we? Still, you’d think that a company full of smart people, a company with a reputation for valuing customer service as a highest priority, would have asked the right questions about ebooks and come up with a better answer than the Kindle appears to be.

Last Monday was the day a lot of people had been waiting for, ever since rumors that Amazon was planning to take on the whole challenge of ebook hardware began to buzz. Monday was announcement day, which means the day before that was leak day as early reports started popping up with details, comments, opinions but no new pictures. No great loss, of course, since the Kindle turns out to look like something designed by desperate engineers who needed a box in a hurry and weren’t much worried about aesthetics or style. It works, it holds everything inside it where the pieces need to stay but the phrase ugly duckling keeps running through my mind.

See, from some perspectives, the Kindle is a very good thing but from a lot of others it’s not at all good. From Amazon’s viewpoint, they’re getting a nice price for a single-task piece of handheld hardware. $399 a pop. I don’t know many rich people but even if I knew thousands of millionaires and billionaires, I very much doubt I’d know many people at all who would want to spend $400 (Allow me my round-off, please. And don’t forget taxes, shipping and whatever else might come along to shove the price over the threshold) to be able to carry a lot of books to read. And magazines. And newspapers. Particularly if they figure out, sooner or later, that Amazon is getting them to pay for some things that they could easily get elsewhere at no cost if they were to invest just a little bit of effort and time. Charging for public domain ebooks? The Gutenberg Project has lots of books available and there’s no charge (and no rights issues, either). Making you pay for newspaper downloads? It’s simple enough to bookmark some newspaper websites and click around a bit. Making you pay to download blogs? Making you pay to email/convert your own files to be readable on the Kindle? Who are they kidding?

Yes, Amazon has done some things right, designing a machine that will pull together books, magazines, newspapers and even blogs onto a single device conceived solely for the purpose of providing a platform for reading. The big problem from my perspective is that comparable (and often superior) platforms already exist but they also do an almost uncountable number of other things. They’re called desktop computers, laptop computers, ultra portable computers, handheld computers, smartphones and probably a few other things that I should have added to the list. In a world where you can now buy a laptop for only a couple of hundred dollars more than you would spend on a Kindle, the question I can’t get away from is, “Why buy a Kindle?”

Maybe we don’t buy those other devices “just” to read books but I read a lot of books and I read a lot of them on screen on one device or another and I’m certainly conscious of that particular use for any device I consider buying. A Palm Treo 700p may not be the ideal model for a portable reading device but there’s software you can buy or download for free that makes it a pretty handy tool for what remains, essentially, a pretty basic function, not to mention all the many other functions that the Treo (or any other smartphone or portable computer) fulfills quite handily for no additional cost.

Sony, another company with a long-term rep for finding large customer bases by hitting the sweet spot in terms of market needs has, despite two iterations over a period of time and despite pricing their hardware $100 lower than the Kindle, apparently not found many people who feel compelled to read books on their device with its proprietary, locked-format files. This despite the fact that Borders, which did a trial of selling the reader in 270 stores, expanded the offering to about 500 stores a few months back and has also arranged to launch a dedicated site for selling Sony Reader formatted titles. When the reader launched, books were available only through Sony’s Connect online store.

And, if you look farther back, less than a decade but a long way in Internet time, to the early days of ebook optimism, there is a small string of dedicated-hardware failures: the SoftBook, the RocketBook, and some others I’m not remembering.

Does a pattern begin to emerge?

I can only think of one company that has proven over time that they are capable of being all things to all people in terms of delivering both brilliant software and impressive hardware. Palm actually managed it for a few years but then they lost their way. Apple seems able to do it consistently.

Amazon, even though most of what they’ve sold up until now is hard goods, is, to my perception at least, a software company at heart. The programming behind their website is excellent, near flawless in fact, and does many different things relating to handling products in a way that satisfies millions of customers very consistently. They’re taking a big leap here in trying to wrap their own software in a marketable piece of hardware. Despite a very attention-grabbing launch, and reports that their initial inventory is sold out already (how big was that inventory and how quickly will they be able to re-stock?), there’s no guarantee that their marketing might is going to overcome the many hurdles in the way of creating a breakthrough product that will truly make ebooks a ubiquitous commodity that captures the mindshare of the public at large, or even the (much smaller) reading public at large. I wish them great success, since such success would, among other things, presumably sell lots of E-Reads titles and make lots of money for us all, but I don’t expect to support their efforts with my money and I have grave doubts that a whole lot of other people will either. There is a substantial but nonetheless relatively small number of gadget freaks out there who have to have the new, new thing right away but once they’ve skimmed the cream off that market, I don’t know how much more deeply the Kindle is going to dig into the masses of what we might call the great unsold. Or should that be “unbuying?”
— John

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