Jeff Bezos and Stephen King announce the new Kindle 2

The Morgan Library is the most museum-like library in New York City, and so it was fitting that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (pictured above) took the stage there this morning to announce the latest version of his book antiquifier known as the Kindle. His grand vision, often repeated throughout the hour long presentation, is that Amazon wants to see nothing less than every book ever published available to all Kindle owners in less than 60 seconds. Is the Kindle 2 going to be the device with enough popularity to create such a seismic shift in readers’ habits that the world of publishing bends its back to make this happen? Well, maybe. Just maybe. Apparently e-book sales have jumped to 10% of all Amazon book sales in just one year thanks to the first device, after years of staying well below the radar, and now Amazon wants us all to see the writing on the, err, Kindle. I expect word of mouth and adoption to be stronger this time around because the product deserves it.

The new Kindle 2 ($357 and shipping Feb. 24th) offers enough improvement from the original that I can now recommend it strongly to friends and family:

  • It has 3G wireless for faster download speed (especially for browsing the Kindle store).
  • It uses Amazon’s latest ‘Whispersync’ service to keep your Kindle’s books and notes backed up on the internet cloud and synchronized to other Kindle devices you may own.
  • Its shape is now thinner than an iPhone (less than half an inch thick) and perfectly symmetrical, with rounded corners and softer buttons.
  • The latest e-ink screen redraws slightly faster (20% over the original) and now does 16 shades of gray instead of just 4.
  • 2GB of built-in storage.
  • Charging via USB mini-port (everyone has these cables by now).
  • It has longer battery life (now up to two weeks between recharges).
  • It has implemented a pleasant text-to-speech computer voice reader for any text (it’s better than Stephen Hawking).
  • It has a new 5-way button navigation instead of the old up-and-down wheel.

Now, none of these things represent bleeding edge technology and are probably a little more anemic than what most of us dream about in a best possible e-book device. For example, any page-turning lag is still annoying (especially in the age when Google has taught us that people can’t bother to wait even 0.5 seconds more than they have to for a page to load). 3G service isn’t going to make a huge difference in speed for most people downloading new books that are typically 900K. And grayscale screens? Don’t even get me started. But what Amazon is offering that makes the Kindle 2 so appealing is their dedication to the book delivery service. Jeff Bezos wants the device to disappear in your hands while you read it, because no one pays attention to the paper or binding of a book when they get wrapped up in the story. They don’t want distractions. So, the device itself is really just something meant to be unpretentious, transient, and replaceable. What they are selling is access to published books in the most convenient manner yet possible. Amazon is dedicated to helping readers find and download books quickly, and the Kindle 2 serves that purpose better than anything else. And for that I think they have a winner.

What makes the Kindle 2 experience more likely to win people over is that Amazon still seems to be letting the Kindle ride its tide of popularity instead of hard selling customers. More and more e-book content is being converted and added to the Kindle online store every month. The incremental technical improvements in the Kindle 2 are the type that give consumers confidence that the company has a long term investment in their satisfaction, and that more improvements will surely come downstream. Original Kindle owners are even being given a two day opportunity to jump to the head of the queue for pre-ordering the Kindle 2, and what better way to spread the word than allow the converted the first opportunity to evangelize. Instead of a discount or trade-ins, this means hand-me-down first-generation Kindles are going to be circulating amongst friends and families.

Stephen King, at Jeff’s invitation and previewing his new Kindle exclusive short story “Ur,” read a passage where students confront a teacher who has never seen a Kindle before. The teacher likes to think of himself as “old school” and defends the tactile properties of the trusty paper book, such as the musty smell acquired with age. The Kindle-familiar students counter that the words are still the same, no matter what old school or new school device is being used to read them. And that’s the epiphany that many readers are similarly experiencing thanks to e-books. We want ideas and stories foremost, and the digital experience is helping us get the access to texts that generations before us never had unless they lived with a very deep library. Jeff and Stephen have understood this for years. They’ve both been trying to get more people interested in the digital distribution of books for as long as the e-book industry has been around and they can feel rightfully proud that the Kindle phenomenon is really taking off.

– Michael Gaudet

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