Thursday, February 7, 2008

First Encounter with Kindle: Underwhelming, but a Start

At a business meeting recently I encountered an Amazon Kindle device in the hands of a prosperous executive eager to show off his new gizmo. It was...pretty much what I had expected. Its eInk display technology makes for an easy-on-the-eyes reading surface, through not super-bright, and the monochrome display has all the charm of an under-engineered Apple Newton. But the device as a whole impresses one as more easy to handle than photographs would imply, with a nifty little sidebar LED display blipping away as pages load to give it that Star Trek feel for those folks who need to be reminded that this is a neat-o device. The keyboard is about as bad as I had expected, but given the Blackberry era that we're living in most people who are already mobile fanatics will probably find it to be plenty easy and familiar enough for the rare times that it will come into use.

Amazon's recent acquisition of spoken word distributor Audible for a hefty USD 300 million price tag underscores that Amazon is only at the very beginning of its journey into mobile content platforms. As it is there are a fair number of publications available already on Kindles, but in spite of its still waiting-list-only sales status after a rousing round of Christmas holiday sales it's not clear that we're seeing the beginning of a stampede to Kindles any time soon with its hefty price tag and slow production schedule. This makes it harder for Kindle enthusiasts to turn their love for the device into sales any time soon. That's probably just as well, given that more beefy functionality is required in the device to make it more universally appealing. It's a bit reminiscent of when U.S. Robotics first introduced the Palm Pilot, a trendy device that sparked the PDA fad but one that lacked a keyboard, a factor that opened the door for more traditional input interfaces from Microsoft and RIM's Blackberry.

While an intense media blitz and Jeff Bezos' personal commitment to the product launch helped to kick Kindle into a well-hyped introduction, I sense that my take from last Fall is still pretty much on track. Kindle is largely an effort by Amazon to go to the "King Gillette" model of making sure that there is a nifty handle (read: mobile platform) on which to sell razor blades regularly. It works for Steve Jobs over at Apple, the thinking goes not doubt, so why shouldn't Amazon have its own content device-cum-captive content channel? Well, why not indeed - at least for now. Kindle will help Amazon to cater to publishers trying to find new walled gardens for their content in an increasingly open digital world, but at the end of the day the value in content is not just in one-time sales but in being able to build a relationship with a content brand or author over time in whatever context an audiences desires that relationship. Kindle will do very well for publishers still in the "we publish things" business but for those who are beginning to realize that they are in the business of providing valuable experiences to audiences Kindle may turn out to be a platform that's more of an experimental bridge to a more interactive and profitable future.
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