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.


Aaron Pressman said...

All I can say is, THANKS, Joe, for writing one of the few balanced pieces on the coming Apple tablet and the Kindle.

Another key factor in the battle may be pricing. The Apple device is rumored to cost 4X the Kindle. And Apple may have a hard time matching Amazon on ebook pricing, as the Kindle store has a pretty significant advantage over other existing purveyors.

Unknown said...

I love my Kindle. I use it nearly every day.

If the "iSlate" comes to pass, I think you'll find it might be a good complement to the kindle rather than a replacement. At least initially. It's likely that, like the iPhone, amazon will want to build a Kindle reader for the device as well.

That would be particularly useful for the technical books I read. Especially for graphic design and photography. But, assuming this new device will have one, I wouldn't want to use a back-lit screen for longer works for instance.

Honestly, I don't think Amazon wants to be in the hardware business in the long run. They are looking to be a content provider. This "iSlate" won't be the end of the Kindle. But it might move them one step closer to exiting the hardware business in the long run.

Just my guess.


liz said...

I have a Kindle and I love it, but I'm 48 years old. My son, who is 20, loves his Apple doo-dads but he doesn't read and neither do his friends. (I mean read for pleasure, he's a college student so obviously he reads, but XBox rules for leisure time activity.) He has a laptop to do all the other stuff that the iSlate will apparently do. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Paul said...

Aaron: I wrote that one, not Joe, but thanks for the kind words. And I agree with you about the pricing. I have a feeling a lot of the same people who criticized Amazon for pricing the Kindle so high are more than happy to look past Apple's premium pricing.

Bob: Interesting point about Amazon getting out of the hardware business. But they'll have to convince publishers to support the e-book model first. Right now I have a feeling Amazon is making money on the hardware only.

Liz: The iSlate will certainly be popular with folks such as your son, but I maintain that folks such as you and I who love to read for pleasure will be happy to stick with our Kindles.

Thanks for the comments, everyone!


Unknown said...

Agreement with what Bob says, above. I would see Apple's tablet as a different kind of device, more a complement to the Kindle than a killer. I've tried reading on back-lit screens for long periods of time -- PDFs on screen that would be "print prohibitive" -- and it's headache inducing. Reading books on the Kindle is painless.

I look forward to the Apple Tablet for what I expect it to be -- kind of a first generation "Star Trek" PADD device. Portable entertainment, sure, but different than a reader, though I see the possibilities that the magazine publishers see; a way to save their somewhat faltering industry. It (the Apple Tablet) will be a massive hit, and a game changer in the same way the iPod was when it came out early in the decade and the iPhone did a few years ago. How much does every smart phone on the market owe to Apple in terms of user interface and design? Does anyone remember how crappy email, web, and etc. were on phones from just a few years ago?

Jane said...

This has all been very interesting and given me a lot to think about. That being said, how do all of you (because you sound like you have much more knowledge about this than I do)think the Kindle and the iSlate will pan out in the classroom? Will the iSlate offer the student too much? Will they become distracted by all the places to visit instead of reading? That is, if either of them do take over the textbook...


Francis Kimani Kamau said...

This war between Amazon and Macmillan has proved to me that Apple want to grab some market shares from Kindle. But the price Macmillan is asking, I wonder if the IPad will not be far more expensive than the Kindle. I wonder what you guys and gals think.