Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Here comes another one

How many "Kindle-killers" have been announced or released in the past two years? I've lost count. Yet despite the flood of killers on the market, the Kindle is still doing quite well, thank you. As you've no doubt heard, Amazon announced that for the first time ever, Kindle book sales surpassed physical book sales on Christmas sales.

Of course the rallying cry of Kindle scoffers has been "B-B-B-But just wait until Apple comes out with an e-book reader!"

It would appear that very day is near. January 26, to be precise. That is the date that Apple has (allegedly) reserved at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where they will (allegedly) introduce the long-anticipated iSlate(tm), the mega-super-mondo-all-in-one tablet device. The rumored feature list grows everyday, and includes everything from gesture-based page turning to video playback to mammography screening.

One thing that everyone is certain about, however, is that it spells doom for the Kindle.*

In a recent blog post -- re-published by the Huffington Post -- tech blogger J.S. McDougall gushes over the possibilities.

I'm not going to reveal any names, but I have it on very good authority, for example, that--unlike the Kindle--the new Apple tablet will, indeed, have a color screen. Might it also ... play video?! (Please pardon the sarcasm.)

It's amusing to consider the evolving criticism of the Kindle. First it was "It will never replace the physical book!" Now with Apple's digital marvel on the way, the Kindle criticism has turned into "The Kindle is too much like a real book! All it does is display text!"

"Digital books should include author interviews, instructional videos, pop-up definitions of esoteric terms, instant foreign translations, optional soundtracks, links to helpful web sites, and anything else publishers and authors can dream up to increase the value and effectiveness of their content," asserts McDougall.

Really? Do we want our books to do all that? In an age when we're constantly surrounded and bombarded by audio/video stimulus, don't we just want to sit down and relish the written word on a plain page occasionally? One of the great things about the Kindle is that it does not get between the reader and author. As Stephen King pointed out back in 2008, after a while the device simply becomes invisible, allowing the reader to become fully absorbed in the story. Also, the Kindle offers no distractions to get in the way of reading (Sure there's a web browser, but it's so bad we're never tempted to actually stop reading and use it.). I see that as a positive.

Aside from that, the Kindle's two biggest strengths are e-ink and wireless access to Amazon's vast selection of e-books -- neither of which the iSlate will have (allegedly).

So why might Apple's Kindle-killer succeed? The same reason the iPod became the number one MP3 player despite that fact that it was neither the first nor the best of its kind: it's made by Apple. Say what you want about Apple products, but the brand carries a hipness and smugness that outweigh any consideration of features and price.

There's no doubt the iSlate will sell big, regardless of what features it does or doesn't have. That's the power of Apple marketing (warning: contains some NSFW language). But after the strongest holiday season ever for the Kindle, and with Amazon's on-demand e-book selection growing every day, is the Kindle really in danger of losing its core audience of people who just like to read? After all, despite what Steve Jobs has said, there are obviously still quite of a few of us around.