Steph purchased an Amazon Kindle 2 (K2) for us while we were in South America. It was waiting for us upon our return, and gave me something to do while we wait for our truck to arrive. For those not familiar with it, the K2 is the second generation of Amazon’s electronic book reader device. It is capable of storing up to approximately 1,500 books, or a mix of books, magazines, newspapers and music.
The first generation Kindle was launched in November 2007. The second generation K2 was launched in early February, and featured a redesigned form factor, new user controls and slightly faster performance.
Both generations of Kindle use a technology called eink for the display of pages. In simple terms, it’s an electronic implementation of traditional offset printing, with the ability to instantly re-create pages based on digital data. In colloquial terms, it can be thought of as a child’s etch-a-sketch with the ability to display a book’s pages one by one. The display on the original Kindle was four shades of gray. The K2’s display is 16 shades of gray and is usually adequate for basic illustrations and photographs.
The device is positioned as an electronic book delivery and display device, primarily for text titles such as fiction or non-photographic or non-heavily illustrated non-fiction. The Kindle also includes a “Beta” web browser, although all web traffic is routed through and controlled by Amazon’s proxies to prevent users from accessing the entire web.
The Kindle includes the ability to bookmark a page, copy sections of a book/magazine/newspaper to a file, and search content by word or phrase. It also includes an English language dictionary that is automatically accessed if you position the cursor next to a word.
The K2 includes text-to-voice technology that will read a book to you in a slightly mechanical voice. Some publishers disable the text-to-voice feature in an attempt to prevent cannibalization of the books-on-CD version of their titles.
The physical height and width is about the same as a typical paperback book, thickness is just a little more than a #2 pencil (8″ x 5.3″ x 0.36″ / 203.2mm x 134.62mm x 9.144mm). Weight is about the same as a substantial paperback, more than a cheapo, airport spinner rack thriller paperback (10.2 ounces / 289 grams).
Hardware interface controls include a Prev Page and Next Page buttons on the left edge, Home, Next Page, Menu, and Back buttons along the right edge. There is a cell phone/digital camera pointing stick located on the top surface nestled into the Menu and Back buttons. A QWERTY keyboard with Chicklet size keys is located on the bottom 20% of the top surface. The screen measures 6 inches / 152.4 mm diagonally.
The Kindle can play MP3 files via the built in stereo speakers or via a standard headphone jack.
An undocumented “Easter Egg” Minesweeper game is included.
You must have an Amazon account to use a Kindle. Unless you want to resort to technical hacks/workarounds, you must purchase your commercial content from Amazon. You can purchase books, magazines or newspapers to read on the Kindle directly from the device, or you can purchase content on Amazon’s website using your computer and then download the content to the Kindle using the included USB cable. The Kindle utilizes the Sprint 3G cellular network to enable wireless download of books, newspapers and magazines to the device. For users outside the Sprint coverage area, the latter method must be used, although the Kindle can only be registered to an Amazon account using the Sprint network. There is currently no provision to loan, sell or share anything you purchase for your Kindle, such as a book or magazine, with another Kindle owner or owner of any other electronic reader. Amazon offers a free or low cost (10 cents per file) service to convert documents (Word, PDF, etc.) to Kindle format and download them to the Kindle or have them emailed to your account.
Amazon’s business model is based on owning and controlling the entire vertical experience, from content creators all the way to content delivery to the reader. Amazon has even taken recent steps to limit the ability of people to purchase content anywhere but Amazon that they intend to display on the Kindle. As you can imagine, this will be a futile battle given the technical prowess of today’s world. Although Amazon intends the Kindle to be a closed, proprietary platform, it is doubtful that a closed platform business model will be viable in the mid- to long-term due to competitive and technical pressures. In other words, in the face of anticipated lower priced, equal to higher performance readers that embrace open platform models, as well as hackers who have already easily defeated their closed model technical measures, Amazon will be forced to move to an open platform at some point or lose the market segment entirely.
As you would expect, there is an active community of people developing enhancements to the Kindle. Some are “nice to haves,” such as the ability to add your own “screen saver” images. Others directly affect capability, such as the ability to directly access PDF files and have them auto-converted for display. The operating system (OS) of the device is a subset of Linux, so there is a large and capable community of developers available and interested in this platform. Up to now, Amazon has not shown the corporate vision to understand that an iPhone Apps type marketplace for the K2 would be a valuable market differentiator.
We’ve had our K2 for a few days. I’ve read one non-fiction book (good experience) and sampled the newspaper feed (NYT – OK for mobile device). I used the browser to test read some newspaper mobile web sites (clunky, slow, barely-bearable).
On a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 as maximum:
- I rate the device as a 4 for the reading text books. It fulfills the mission in a well lit reading environment. It rates a zero in environments with no light.
- I rate the device as a 2 for interacting with text books, meaning highlighting, clipping sections, copying those sections to another device/environment, etc. The GUI is just too painfully unresponsive and slow to make those functions productively useful.
- I rate the device as a 3 for reading subscription newspaper feeds that are formatted specifically for the K2, meaning they take advantage of the devices hardware UI controls to move through content.
- I rate the device as a 1 for reading non-subscription newspaper feeds. The lag time of the GUI and the painfully slow process of moving the cursor to your desired location is more of a torture device than an user interface.
- I rate the device a 4 as a business model and content delivery platform. However, I do not think the current business model will long survive competitive and other pressures. I agree with industry commentators that the platform could be an enduring and very sizable success if it became an open platform.
We spent some time this AM discussing desired features, upgrades and changes to the Kindle. These are not ranked.
1. Larger screen for periodicals, which is reportedly on the way later in ’09.
2. Faster CPU or whatever it takes to make the GUI responsive. The cursor response is so painfully slow with the K2 using it is marginal at best.
3. Integral lighting for use in dark environments.
4. Native PDF support, and this means exact reproduction and display of the original document.
5. Password protection.
6. Ability to quickly and easily highlight sections (see GUI performance issue, item #2) and save and/or email to any address.
7. Home and End keys or shortcuts.
8. Simple, non-tech way for users to customize the K2 experience, e.g. user “screen saver” images. The user should be able to easily download photos or create a text image using the K2 keyboard.
9. Variable cost model content, such as free or very low cost content in conjunction with advertising.
10. Ability to categorize, store, search and access content based on metadata (category, content type, etc.).
11. Auto-rotation of content to match device orientation, such as an iPhone.
12. Secondary market for titles. Just as you can buy “new or used” books at amazon.com, in order to be viable long-term, the Kindle paradigm must contain a secondary market for purchased titles. Users should have the ability to re-license their content to another Kindle owner, with Amazon charging a low transaction fee. Users should have the ability to re-sell their content, again with Amazon and the publisher charging a low fee. The re-sell market could be time-gated, meaning no re-sales would be allowed until a title had been on the market for 6, 9 or 12 months. If no official, legal secondary market is created, it is inevitable that a non-legal secondary market will be created and receive tacit cultural/social endorsement.
13. A product management vision that is larger than an eBook reader. There is a real opportunity for the Kindle to be a new class of convergence device that would be highly disruptive, but only if the product management team holds this vision. Why are you not flying Reading or Penn Central airlines? Because those companies thought they were in the railroad business instead of the transportation business. The Kindle product management team needs to fully leverage the baseline technologies they have brought into one device. At this point, the K2 reflects either a) non-realization of that vision or b) a painfully incomplete implementation of that vision’s potential.
Having said all of this, I want to make it clear that in my opinion, the K2 is a remarkable accomplishment. I congratulate the entire K2 development team for what they have accomplished so far. I hope the corporate and product management team can match the development team’s level of expertise with a product vision that can leverage all of the available opportunities.