Monday, November 19, 2007

The Platform is the Marketplace: Amazon's Kindle Joins Microsoft, Apple and Google in Mobile Race

The image of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on the cover of Newsweek clutching his new Kindle as if it were "the new, new thing" is designed to get us thinking that the new portable device from Amazon is going to revolutionize the way that we use books, etc.

In short, it's not.

The article in Newsweek is filled with gushing praise for Bezos' efforts to "revolutionize" book reading as we know it, but little of what it promises requires a Kindle to make it happen. As the article acknowledges eventually:
In 2007, screens are ubiquitous (and less twitchy), and people have been reading everything on them—documents, newspaper stories, magazine articles, blogs—as well as, yes, novels. Not just on big screens, either. A company called DailyLit this year began sending out books—new ones licensed from publishers and classics from authors like Jane Austen—straight to your e-mail IN BOX, in 1000-work chunks.
In other words it's fair to say that the cat has been out of the bag for books on mobile platforms for quite some time and that from a book perspective there's not much new to say about Kindle other than it's another new device for eInk technology and a good way for people to view Amazon-scanned books in a proprietary viewer. Other than that, you're looking at an Apple Newton with built-in wireless that costs $100 more than a comparable eBook reader from Sony.

Ah, but that wireless. Probably the most interesting things that the Kindle can handle have less to do with books and a lot more to do with other content and marketing opportunities via its wireless capabilities. The Kindle will be able to download newsstand content such as newspapers and magazines as well as books via a wireless system that can use both wireless hotspot technology and broadband wireless. While at launch time the downloads are going to be coming from the Amazon online store, there's the potential in this platform to be a device that could interact with "bricks" environments as well as "clicks." When the Newsweek article says:
Amazon has designed the Kindle to operate totally independent of a computer: you can use it to go to the store, browse for books, check out your personalized recommendations, and read reader reviews and post new ones, tapping out the words on a thumb-friendly keyboard. Buying a book with a Kindle is a one-touch process.
it means Amazon's Kindle Store online site. Not exactly Buck Rogers stuff.

But what if instead the Kindle were a device that you could use to point at items in a retail store to learn more about them and then click on the Kindle to enable immediate purchasing of either a physical or virtual version of that item? What if you were reading an interesting eBook at your favorite coffee shop and then picked up a hard copy of it at the counter from their print-on-demand machine while you ordered up your second latte? Or, better yet, if you're in Toys 'R Us you could browse online reviews of toys and games on your Kindle and use in-store electronic purchasing via the Kindle to speed up the checkout process. Given the enormous investment that Amazon has in retailing all kinds of manufactured goods you'd think that they'd focus on how to improve margins across their entire catalog of merchandise via an electronic gadget.

Given the premium price tag for one of these units it's not clear that there's going to be much of any thunder at the cash register for Kindles this holiday season. Consider this a modest step by Amazon to get into the mobile platform business in a way that could position it in a very interesting way over time as an alternative to Microsoft, Apple and Google - a positioning that would make Amazon more attractive as an acquisition target for a publisher-friendly online service. Say, like, Yahoo? With Yahoo's brand-friendly approach to content, it would be a natural fit. So consider Kindle less of a revolution in eBooks and more of an evolution of Amazon towards a marriage that can bring its investors to a new level in the marketplace via acquisition.
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