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11/20/2007

Kindle or kindling?

The entertainment world has been transformed by digital technology. Television has been reinvented by digital video recorders. Apple is now the most significant music company in the world. It's hard to find a field of entertainment that hasn't experienced some kind of upheaval with the emergence of convenient digital technology. Every field, except books, of course. Consumers just haven't jumped at ebooks the way they did iPods.

Amazon thinks its new wireless reading device called Kindle is going to succeed where others have failed. But at $399 will consumers toss aside their paperbacks and embrace ebooks? Amazon seems to be betting heavily that they will given the prominence of the launch and the marketing support behind it.

Amazon's got a number of obstacles to overcome beyond the high price tag. Kindle is being called the iPod of the ebook market, but Apple succeeded with iPods for a couple of reasons that aren't necessarily true of Kindle.

First, there was a built-in market. Digital music consumption was growing independent of the availability of quality players and convenient (and legal) music sources. The iPod's success was as much a function of iTunes, which made finding your favorite music easy, cost-effective and legal, as it was of the simplicity and appealing look of the device itself. It's not clear that there's much of a market for ebooks. Amazon's basically trying to create a market whereas Apple created a superior product and improved the distribution system in an existing one. Amazon faces a much stiffer challenge here.

Second, music is a much different product than books. Music does not really have structure. The CD had already more or less destroyed the aesthetic appeal of records. Cover art, liner notes and other non-essentials had been sufficiently marginalized by the time digital music arrived. Consumers were quite willing to trade a large CD collection for a single device which would allow them to play whatever song they want wherever they want - at home, in their car, on a jog, whatever.

Books are much more complicated. They are essentially content, yes, but the physical appeal of books is far more significant. The touch of a book, the effect of the paper on your eyes, the font on the page, all of these aesthetic qualities are a major part of the book reading experience. If there were demonstrable value in having access to myriad books at one time (as there is in having access to one's entire music collection) it might be enough to overcome the emotional connection a consumer has with a book. But apart from the convenience of having a multiple books at your disposal on a long vacation, there aren't many instances where a consumer really needs access to all the content Kindle provides.

The Kindle does offer a number of useful features. An owner can sample books before buying. He or she can have top magazines and newspapers delivered directly to the device and access top blogs. But other devices, most notably, cell phones allow you to access many of these sites as well.

I suspect digital books will one day find their niche; it seems inevitable. If Amazon is betting on them becoming mainstream in the same way the mp3 player has... well, let's call that a longshot. I just don't see that many people spending that kind of money for something with pretty minor utility.

November 20, 2007 in Digital lifestyle, New product launches | Permalink

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