Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why the Kindle is the Future of Reading

My Two Cents on the Kindle

Disclaimer: I have no non-public information on the Kindle. I don't even work in the same building as those folks. The following are just my own opinions and do not reflect the opinions of or any of its employees or partners.

I was walking home from the gym a few days ago and was listening to Buzz Out Loud bash the Kindle DX when I reached an epiphany that may be obvious but I wanted to share it anyway: the Kindle is ridiculously forward thinking and will most likely be the future of reading.

I've read several articles and heard multiple podcasts bash the Kindle, and I'm pretty tired of it. I don't own a Kindle, but playing with it for a bit was enough to sell me on it. The first thing wrong with all these "pundits" writing off the Kindle is that they're often not the target audience. Not everyone loves reading, and that's ok. The Kindle is designed for people who love reading. It's not designed to be a super sexy gadget like the iPhone or the Pre or anything like that - it's meant to be as functional as possible. I feel like we've entered a world of gadgets where style taking precedence over substance helps sales, and it sells some reporters on the devices, as well. I don't want to discredit all people that review gadgets, that's just an observation I've made about some of them. I haven't heard anyone who has a Kindle and enjoys reading tell me that they hate it or regretted getting it.

The real point I want to make is that a lot of the best technology starts out unpopular. Do you know why MSN was so late to the game with it's Internet services and web portal? Because Microsoft thought that the Internet was a fad (it's pretty hard to find a citation for this, but he definitely said something to the effect of "The Internet? We're not interested in it"). When most people hear MSN now they probably think of MSNBC, whereas the ISP didn't do all that hot (competing with the likes of AOL and Earthlink) and the web portal never caught up to Yahoo, which never caught up to Google, and the rest is history (although MSN is still around). Nowadays, the odds are slim to none that you'll go through your day without directly or indirectly interacting with the Internet. Our lives basically revolve around it, but I'll get back to this point.

There are a couple of other great examples of technologies that people mocked early on. When Jeff Bezos invented e-Commerce in 1994 with, people thought he was out of his mind. Why would people want to buy stuff online they could drive to their store and get instantly? Why would you buy a book that you can't flip through in a bookstore? And yet, here Amazon stands as a formidable force in retail in the U.S. with a growing presence across the world. The people who doubted Jeff Bezos weren't stupid, they just weren't thinking ahead that far. The DVD format was seen as ridiculous since it required a new player and the discs cost more without a very big jump in quality as far as most people were concerned, and yet now almost every house has a DVD player. Heck, just a couple of years ago pundits thought that the iPhone was prohibitively expensive and no one would want to pay that much money for a smartphone without a keyboard. I think we all know what happened there.

The lesson to be learned here is that you can't believe what you hear in mainstream media - take it with a grain of salt. The common thread is that the doubters weren't forward thinking. The iPhone provided so much value and gave people such a rich experience that price just wasn't an issue to them. The Kindle is expensive, and yet people are still buying them. I don't need top secret information to know that - I see them outside on the bus and at the gym. Amazon sold out of them this past winter. If you don't want to believe that, you have to believe that 35% of sales on all books that have a Kindle edition are that Kindle edition. Books are the bedrock that was founded on, so 35% of a book's sales being for the Kindle is a pretty big deal. As much as all these journalists want to naysay, people aren't being deterred.

So why are people paying so much for a device that serves a single function? In a way, I think it serves a lot of functions. Not to sound like a broken record, but we live in an information society. Think about that for a second. The amount of knowledge we have available instantly at our fingertips has grown dramatically in the past couple of decades. I'd posit that people are actually becoming smarter because even though they haven't to remember less stuff overall since they can always just look it up, they also look up and learn more stuff because they can. We know names of random actors and actresses because of IMDB. Small underground artists are building worldwide fanbases through digital distribution. Let's face it, books aren't as portable as we'd like to think. If we want to read multiple books, we have to carry them in a bag. If you're a student - this really sucks (especially math and science texts). The Kindle not only lets you carry all these books in a thin, easy to carry package, but you can get leverage the Internet to get books directly onto it. Past that though, you can highlight and make notes without damaging the book, and you have more room than just the margins. Plus, you can define words you don't know on the fly (context clues don't always work), and having that kind of power for younger students can really encourage their thirst for knowledge.

If I'm not convincing you by now then maybe I'm just not explaining it right, but the Kindle is an improvement on a dying technology. People just don't have a whole lot of free time anymore. We wait around a lot, or ride public transit, or do other random things where we happened to be free, but it's not really free time. That's why carry mp3 players to fill that time. Books often lose the battle for our time because they're just not as convenient as carrying your iPod. If a Kindle is portable enough to carry to a gym, then it's portable enough for most anything. I fully understand that people love the feel of books, but people love the feel of CDs and yet they're still around while mp3s are popular. Why can't the same be true for books? I think books will die off in favor of digital copies some day, but that's a really long time from now. The Kindle may be a bit ahead of its time, but it's going to take a while for it to really catch on because an e-Reader is such a radical concept. Amazon has just done well because they have the online book store with access from where ever.

As for price: the first iPod and iPhone were expensive at first, too, but the price went down. Same with HD TVs, DVD players, personal computers, laptops, etc. It's going to be a while. For college students, the cost of a Kindle DX amortized over 4 years would easily be cheaper than real textbooks if the cost of these books were maybe half (even without the ability to re-sell books). For grade schools this could put a huge dent in their budgets if they could give each kid one of these and pay less for books (plus the drop in administrative costs if they could be managed remotely). The possibilities for education are really endless, and it's really a lot easier to study if your books are always with you in a portable device. I know I would've gotten more done.

Ok, I think I've gone on long enough. I hope that thoughts haven't been all that scattered, I just feel like I need to stand up for the Kindle because I honestly believe in it. I think that Amazon has been really smart so far in its diversification of not only its stores and acquisitions but also AWS, and I think that the Kindle is another key cog in its future (much like when Apple jumped into mp3 players and cell phones, which ended up re-vitalizing the Mac). The Kindle vision is "every book, every made, in any language, available in under 60 seconds". That vision is immensely inspiring. It feels pie in the sky, but it is possible. I think that alone should be enough to sell people on the idea of the Kindle being the future of reading. The idea of having the entirety of human knowledge available at your fingertips in under a minute is priceless. The Internet has taken us on that path, but it doesn't have the full text of every book every made in any language. The point I really want to get across is that we're at the forefront of an entirely new industry, much like digital music when Napster got big or the beginning of the end of broadcast television as we know it when Hulu came out - savor the moment. Don't buy into the hype and don't buy into the cynics, just be reasonable. That's all I ask.

Microsoft vs. Apple Ads

The advertising war between Microsoft and Apple is alive as well. It was pretty lopsided for a while, probably partially because Microsoft didn't want to seem like it was bullying an underdog, but Apple pushed too hard and woke the sleeping giant. The latest spin out of Redmond (aside from the commercials where people buy cheap PCs) is that it costs $30,000 to fill an iPod. The reason they can get around this with the Zune is that it's subscription-based, which has the advantage that for $15 a month you get all you can eat music plus you can keep 10 of them each month. Anyway, I still thought that this was kind of a stupid tactic from Microsoft, but meanwhile Apple came up with an attack that you couldn't get a PC without the stuff people hate about computers.

Which is a more ridiculous ad? The answer is that they're equally crazy. You may think that the Zune one is more dumb because most people already have a library of CDs and music to fill up their mp3 player with, but the Mac ad doesn't make any sense. Macs aren't as stable as people think they are - if you use certain software you will see crashes. I used iMovie for few months on a Mac Pro last spring and it crashed almost each time I used it. There are definitely security vulnerabilities for Macs, too, and it totally ignores the inflated price of a Mac. I'm not saying that Macs are bad computers, but these ads are slinging mud. They know that people won't fact check, but they're not quite slanderous so Apple can get away with them. My point is simply that when Microsoft comes up with ads like this Zune one, just remember who cast the first stone.

I have one more thing to slip in here: Google started airing a Google Chrome ad created internally by Google Japan just for fun. It's interesting that they care this much about Chrome (what's their master plan?) and that they're using a competing advertising venue to sell themselves.

Facebook's Funny Money

Ok so they don't really call it funny money, but I still can. Facebook is toying with an idea that's certainly not inventive, but it could definitely help them get on the track of a successful business model. They're testing a payments system with developers where virtual money can be used between applications to buy and sell virtual (or I suppose even physical) goods and services. It would make buying stuff easier and safer (like getting a wristband of money at a water park), and Facebook taking a cut of the transactions could help them replace/supplement their oft controversial advertising model with something less obtrusive. I don't really know if it'll work because I don't know if people will really trust Facebook with their money or want to buy what third party developers offer, but I'm definitely anxious to see what happens.

Meanwhile, their employees are going in the opposite direction: having imaginary money turned into real cash. Facebook has sought funding (to the tune of $150 million) from private investors to buy back their employees' stock to keep loyal employees around who have been chomping at the bit for a cut of the profits they were promised but haven't come to fruition quite yet. Won't people leave if they get rich off their stock? More importantly though, isn't this a dangerous financial decision? $150 million seems like a lot of money to bet if they don't come up with a good business model before their star burns out. I hope they know what they're doing.

Final Notes

Aside from being tired from today (didn't sleep enough last night), I think you're tired of reading this post by now (assuming that anyone is actually still reading this). Let me link you to a few other interesting tidbits before I send you on your merry way:

Google has launched a search options feature to try to get themselves closer to real-time search. They're actually pretty nifty.

The CEO of Sony Pictures admitted that he doesn't see anything good as having come from the Internet. You don't have to scroll up very far to get my opinions on the glory of the Internet, but it goes to show how backwards the movie industry can be and why licensing for TV shows and movies and their related properties is so wacky. If their CEO is living in the past then how can they hope to have a future?

The judge in the Pirate Bay trial has been under fire recently for having been involved in a pro-copyright association in Sweden (which he claims didn't bias him), but now they're starting to discover that his appointment may not have been random (as is supposed to be the case in Sweden). The plot thickens! Will it be called a mistrial?

Smashing Magazine has a really well-written article on how to optimize your website's conversion rates with usable designs, and it's full of pretty pictures. I love the concepts they point out here, and I think it's worth a read if you're interested in usability at all.

Coldplay is releasing their live album for free. Enjoy.

I hope you all have a great week! I think I'm going to spend my nights trying to learn how to play this.

1 comment:

Russ/rfduck said...

I have mixed feelings on the Kindle. I'm not against digital media, but I also don't think physical media should disappear. It's obviously easier to carry around one device versus many books, some of which may be quite large. Still, I'd miss the actual books even if I could have them all in one place.

I think Kindle really has potential for things like newspapers and textbooks. Textbooks are ridiculously expensive, and I think the costs of updating and printing them would be greatly reduced if they were available digitally.

Newspapers, on the other hand, are completely inefficient for reading on public transit or at the kitchen table. Newspaper companies could reduce expenses by allowing their issues to be downloaded. Most copies are tossed or recycled anyway, so digital would offer an environmental benefit. Copies of articles or photos could be sold for a reasonable fee.

Lastly, I would be against large format photo books going digital. Nothing can replace a beautiful photograph on glossy paper.