Dreaming of the Superkindle

By  |  Tuesday, May 18, 2010 at 12:35 am

I’m pleased by the news–inevitable though it was –that Amazon is working on a Kindle app for Android phones. But I’m more intrigued by this Nick Bilton post at NYTimes.com on Amazon’s current hiring spree for its Kindle team. Amazon surely has a strategy in place for the future of its e-reader platform–one which must respond to the arrival of the iPad, even if it responds mostly by studiously ignoring it. It’s going to be fun to watch it unfold.

So What Will Bezos Do? The way I see it, Amazon has four major options.

1) Take on the iPad. It could build something that does e-books, but also does most everything else that the iPad does–apps, movies, music, the Web, e-mail, and more. In other words, build a tablet computer, complete with an LCD touchscreen.

2) Keep it simple, stupid. It could build devices much like today’s Kindle, with incremental improvements–better software, for instance, and maybe even color–at pricetags that keep coming down. In other words, don’t take on the iPad.

3) Create the e-reader of the future. It could build something much more powerful, versatile, and pleasant to use than today’s Kindle–but something that, unlike the iPad, is focused entirely on reading. Let’s call it a Superkindle, shall we?

4) Stop making e-readers. With Kindle software available on the iPad, Windows, OS X, iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android, is it clear that Amazon needs to stay in the software biz?

With Amazon staffing up with more hardware geeks, it presumably doesn’t intend to try option 4 just now. Other than that, I don’t have a clue which direction it will pursue. But option 3 is the most entertaining one to ponder, since it’s least obvious what the upshot would look like.

Great color, period. I’m intrigued by electronic-paper technologies such as Qualcomm’s Mirasol. But I’d still get giddy if Amazon announced a Kindle with an LCD, because it remains the only technology capable of competing with the splendor of good old fashioned ink on paper. At its default settings, the iPad’s display is a tad bright for reading–you can crank it down–but an LCD-equipped Kindle could ship with settings designed to be easy on the reader’s eyeballs.

Less weight. When I think of the iPad as a netbook alternative, it’s delightfully portable; when I use it as a Kindle alternative, lifting it up like a book, I’m keenly aware I’m holding a pound and a half of electronics. A Superkindle might have to weigh more than the current small Kindle’s 10.2 ounces, but it oughta decisively beat the iPad, even if it means reducing the screen size. Let’s shoot for a pound.

Books with pictures. And lots of ’em. How about aiming to double the selection of books available for Kindle over the next 18 months–with most of the additions being art-heavy tomes that just wouldn’t work on the current Kindle?

Beautiful magazines and newspapers. The current Kindle has a bevy of big-name titles, with nifty automatic delivery–but their E-Ink incarnations are text-heavy and dreary. On the iPad, publishers are building separate apps with varying approaches. There’s still room for the Superkindle to deliver the best of all worlds: An array of periodicals that look great, read great, and show up in one convenient place once you’ve subscribed.

The first great e-reader software. I don’t think we’ve seen it yet. The Kindle hardware has lots of features, but they’re tucked into a dowdy interface that’s forced to work its way around E-Ink’s limitations. Apple’s iBooks, Amazon’s Kindle apps, and most other e-reading programs don’t let you do all that much but flip through pages of not-very-sophisticated type. I want more sophisticated layouts, better tools for annotating and research, and s0me sort of plug-in architecture. In other words, I want something sort of like a modern Web browser–but tailored specifically for reading.

It’s a kick to toss a theoretical Superkindle around…but I’m not arguing that it’s Amazon’s most logical option. Even prosperous gadget freaks, if forced to choose between an impressive one-purpose device (the Superkindle) and an impressive Swiss Army Knife (the iPad) might opt for the latter. Assuming you like the idea of leaving dead trees behind at all–at least some of the time–what would your ideal e-reading gadget look like?


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6 Comments For This Post

  1. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    These all sound like great ideas if Amazon did them in 2007.

    There are just too many iPads and color and touch is way too much of an advantage. In publishing, it is all iPad now. That is the sexy and it can run a standard ePub with color photos, vector graphics, and audio video. It’s easier to author for iPad. The books look better.

    By the end of 2010 it will be 10:1 iPad over Kindle. Everybody wants to be on iPad. I’ve heard authors say they do not want to be on Kindle.

  2. Mike Says:

    The recommendations are interesting but are at odds with each other? I have a Kindle II, which is gathering dust as I use my iPad. To me a better question is –

    What business is Amazon in? Do they want to provide content or hardware, it will be tough to be successful at both. The Kindle paved the way for ereaders, that doesn’t mean it will continue to be successful. The Kindle shone as a text device and for a book, with few or even better no illustrations. For many books that was OK,but it had severe limitations in the real world but the form factor was convenient. Be very curious as to what they come up with. The three books I have coauthored are heavy on illustrations, tables, etc a much better fit for the iPad or a similar device

    Your suggestion to dramatically grow the number of titles is key, that way they don’t care if I am reading it on any device – I am buying content from them

  3. Tom B Says:

    H. is correct.

    Amazon should simply exit hardware. It is an unneeded cost, at this point, and they can still make money off book downloads, unless Apple closes them out of that business. Since AMZN has carved out a modest MP3 business, in spite of the iTunes store, they can probably do the same with books.

    They should’nt bother supporting Android. 2012 is not far off, and when ATT loses iPhone exclusivity, there will simply be no argument left for Android to keep going, unless those phones magically, suddenly get WAY, WAY better than what we have seen.

  4. sfmitch Says:

    I think option # 2 is Amazon’s best option.

    Amazon should continue to offer their own book reader. A simple, but well executed, book reader that sells for substantially less than the iPad (and inevitable iPad competitors) is a real market. Amazon should continue to support a diversity of platforms so that they will continue to be the leading ebook seller.

    Going toe to toe with Apple in the tablet market most likely won’t end well for Amazon.

  5. Eric Says:

    I love my Kindle (1st gen) and the whole ecosystem they’ve got going. I love having some respite from backlit screens and the leisure of essentially not worrying about battery life at all, so I think e-ink will have a niche (perhaps a sizable one once you factor in students…).

    I think lower price tags are the most important sticking point right now. Frankly, there’s little you can do to radically improve the experience of reading a novel over the Kindle’s experience (beyond the improvements in e-ink, which Amazon has little control over) – now they should get it into more people’s hands. I think once these are under $150, most book lovers will fall under their spell and hopefully we’ll see nearly every book in e-book format (there are still a lot of shocking blanks in the catalog).

  6. pond Says:

    This kinda reminds me of Palm Pilot faced with the threat of Microsoft’s PocketPC. The Pilot did one thing (PDA) very well, but it was popular enough to spawn a lot of programs that went beyond that. PocketPC came along with a ‘mini-me Windows95’ approach that required a lot more hardware – faster processors, color screens, and so on – that necessitated higher prices.

    Palm could have stuck with their ‘simple is better’ approach, and lowered prices further. Instead they got caught up in Microsoft’s perennial game of checklists – ‘Can the competition do X, Y, Z? PocketPC can.’

    Going to a LCD or color Kindle is playing Apple’s game. Harry, there is a reason why Jeff Bezos and his Kindle team chose eink in the first place, and it isn’t because eink was cheap! They could have gone with color TFT screens from the beginning. But they liked the user experience of the eink screens. If anything, the original Kindle was too complex, with the many buttons and keyboard. Sony’s Reader is more like it. Just a reader, thank you, ma’am.

    At this point, Amazon may have built up a base of support for Kindle edition ebooks so that they can forego designing and selling hardware. It doesn’t look like that’s going to be their choice, though. It looks like they are going to follow Palm. (And look how well that worked out for Palm!)

    Amazon has one big advantage: the world’s biggest list of actual paying customers who are the most avid readers, and those readiest to pay for books. But the drawback is that the history of ebook devices has always shown that the single-function device (all now defunct) has always, so far, failed when put up against the multi-function device.

    Buy an iPad or Android slate, or smartphone, for other purposes. Then buy and read ebooks on it. Marginal cost? 0 for the device, since you already have it.

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