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Why Kindle is no iPod

November 20, 2007

Amazon is, tacitly at least, positioning its Kindle ebook reader as the "iPod of reading." While as a handheld device tied into an online store, it bears some resemblance to Apple's blockbuster, that's where the similarity ends. The Kindle enters a market that is entirely different from the one the iPod entered back in 2001, and the market difference, more than any aesthetic or functional shortcoming, is what will likely spell the Kindle's doom.

Digital music players were well-established when the iPod appeared. Sales of MP3 players were still fairly modest, but they were growing rapidly, indicating that a real market existed with real consumer demand. There is no such market for the Kindle. Every ebook reader up to now has failed, doomed by consumer indifference. The iPod was not pioneering a virgin market; the Kindle is.

The market for digital music players existed in 2001 because the content for the players - the digitally compressed music file - was already ubiquitous. Thanks to Napster, millions of people had stuffed their hard drives with MP3s and had installed jukebox software to manage them. What was required at the time was a simple, stylish way to make all that music portable, with a seamless connection between the PC jukebox and the portable device's software. That's what the iPod-iTunes system provided. The DRM, or copy-protection, embedded in the files that eventually came to be sold through the iTunes store was a non-issue for customers because they had a ton of easily shared DRM-free MP3s that worked just fine on the iPod.

There is no big, readymade supply of content for the Kindle. It arrives in your hands naked and empty, and the only way to fill it (other than through a kludgey and largely useless process of mailing Word documents and photos to a special email address for an extra charge) is to buy fairly expensive books and subscriptions through the Amazon store. This is where the price of the Kindle and the copy protections on the Amazon content become deal-breakers. People would pay $399 for the iPod because they could get pretty much unlimited content for free. (Indeed, to underscore that fact, the iTunes store didn't even open until nearly two years after the iPod debuted.) And people knew that even if the iPod was pulled from the market or a better device came along, they wouldn't sacrifice their music. It was safely on their PC hard drives, in a readable and transportable format. Even the DRM-ed iTunes Store tracks could fairly easily be recoded as DRM-free MP3s.

So the Kindle, unlike the iPod, has a huge mountain to climb. Amazon has to create demand not only for the device but for the content that fills the device, and it has to do that while presenting would-be buyers with the specter of a big upfront expense, ongoing outlays for every piece of content, and substantial risks related to obsolescence and failure, of both the device and the content format.

For the Kindle to be the "iPod of reading," it would have had to have been preceded by a "Napster of reading." And, of course, it wasn't. Which probably tells you something about the difference between songs and stories.


Exactly. The iPod definitely rode the wave of music piracy and the ubiquitous MP3 format, and people seem to forget this. One reason the same thing hasn't happened for video is that there are a million different formats and DRM schemes. It's especially odd that Amazon will charge Kindle users a non-trivial/non-flat fee for blogs or newspapers that are free on the web.

One wonders how much publishers are to blame for the screwy business model and lack of support for open standards. The NYT article suggests that Amazon is taking a loss on bestsellers priced at $9.99. Looks like yet another instance where content owners are undermining their own interests out of fear and channel conflict.

A device like this that supported web, PDF and other standards might justify the $400 price. (But is electronic ink viable for web browsing?) An iPhone-like device with a bigger screen would probably fit the bill, but of course Apple will charge $1500 for it, then lower the price to $1000. :)

Posted by: Kendall Brookfeld [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 20, 2007 11:59 AM

I agree with most of this apart from the last line.

Napster (for music) was preceded by at least a decade of ubiquitous availability of music in digital form (i.e the CD.) Combine that with cheap hardware that could rip and encode in much less time than it took to play the CD, and a format (MP3) that made copying over the internet realistic, and we were all set.

So I'd argue that the reason there is no "Napster of reading" isn't down to some qualitative difference between songs and stories so much as it is because there is no Audiograbber or ExactAudioCopy of books. Well, there is, but it looks like this.

Posted by: Mark Allerton [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 20, 2007 12:11 PM

I don't agree, Nick. As far as I have seen there is as a matter of fact a lot of content. There really are books to buy I would want to read.

And more important: the papers, magazines, etc. Obviously, Amazon reckons this will fly, because finally it could be a way for providers of digital content to make money. And the obstacle of not having a backup is not really a problem, because they will be yesterday's papers. Apart from that: I understand you can store your things with Amazon, and that seems rather reliable to me.

So of course, there are 3 crucial issues:

1. ease of use, in relation to the price. I think is can be good value, and I expect the price to fall. Especially since I expect Amazon to license the software of the Kindle itself to others, because probably Amazon is in it for selling the content, not the hardware.

2. availability of content. The jury is still out, but the first signs are not bad.

3. possibility of uploading your own content. It is possible tot do it via Amazon (probably for getting the right dimensions of the test for the screen; right now a problem with most PDFs for e-readers), but I get the impression you also can do it yourself. However, I am not sure of that.

In the end, the question is: would I buy one? Yes, I think so. But I live in Europe, so it is not possible to use it for the time being.

Posted by: mat [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 20, 2007 01:31 PM

Something strange is happening: Amazon is competing with itself. They invented the online, mail-order bookstore; now they are selling a device that makes that model obsolete.

Furthermore, the best feature of this device is an aside. Free online access to Wikipedia. Imagine if the rest of the free content in the world---all Shakespeare's plays, every book written before 1920, all of the OpenCourseWare content from MIT, etc---could be accessed via Kindle. That would be something.

Check out my blog entry (http://www.robbyslaughter.com/blog/?2007-11-19) for more thoughts.

Posted by: Robby Slaughter [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 20, 2007 04:54 PM

Judging from the photos, the Kindle is no iPod because it:

Is ugly as mud
Has a crappy name

I'm eager for an electronic book solution, but this ain't it.

Posted by: James [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 20, 2007 07:08 PM

For years now, people are used to reading books. We will never be comfortable with an electronic device emitting bright light into our eyes.
We are used to the way we hold books in our hands. We can sleep reading books.. there are many things that make printed books unique.

I would like to suggest something to 'innovators' out there:
"Please don't try to solve problems that don't exist. Please dont try to complicate simple solutions out there by adding technology. Technology is not the solution to everything. Eg: You cannot eat binary food"

Posted by: Niyaz PK [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 21, 2007 12:51 AM

Apart from the usage model not sounding so hot, it looking like a prototype of something that Texas Instruments might've come up with in 1983 won't exactly generate a big 'Wow!' factor I think.

It seems funny that for 5 years, people have attributed the iPod's success - at least in part - to it's design and Amazon seem to have ignored that. Or perhaps they think that CE designs from the early 80's was a design pinnacle...

Anyhow, talking of Apple, I wonder if there wasn't another reason why last year they stopped calling their entry-level consumer laptop the 'iBook'?


Posted by: Simon [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 21, 2007 07:19 AM

I agree that "free content" (either from CDs or Napster) played a big role in the success of the iPod. But do consumers really need to have a backlog of pre-existing content before embracing the ebook concept?

The huge difference between music and books is that we listen to our favorite tracks again and again. But that's not the case for most books. If you're a reader, you're most likely acquiring new books at a regular rate, so compatibility with content you already own is much less important to the Kindle that it was for the iPod.

If consumers believe that Kindle content is reasonably priced relative to printed books, it might have a chance.

Posted by: david [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 21, 2007 11:37 AM

Bad comparison, Nick.

People don't generally re-read yesterday's newspaper or the same book over and over again, yet they do that with music.

I've read several full books over the years on a variety of handhelds (PDAs to smartphones) and found that once I've started to see beyond the physical form into the author's world, the physical form, brightness, resolution, et al cease to matter. Handhelds are often actually more comfortable because they're lighter than a book and self-illuminating.

I suspect Kindle's fate will largely revolve around DRM, network connectivity and the yet-another-item-to-lug-around factor. (On the last: I have a six minute commute these days, down from one and a half hours, and find that I no longer can be bothered with podcasts or iPods, because they're far too much a hassle for the time available.)

Not already having digital books is the least of Kindle's problems, because that's not the sort of thing people hoard.

Posted by: Jace [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 22, 2007 10:22 AM

Not having a Wifi or cable Pdf, Doc & Rtf importer is too big a mistake to imagine Bezos making it. This story has really been bothering me for a week: I read 50+ pages of Pdf a day (PhD student) with more then a hour of commute — and my best take is that too many companies were good at making e-Ink for Amazon to save its market, and the huge specific assets attached to it. By f*cking-up this one, they delay the adoption of e-book readers a few month, swooping the disgruntled early-adopters to their competitors.

I'll put more on my blog any time.

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 23, 2007 11:20 AM

While I think the Kindle itself won't make it, I'm much more sanguine about the future of electronic books. The more apt comparison isn't so much Kindle vs. iPod as much as Kindle as Napster - both were early-stage companies that had fatal business models but laid the groundwork for follow-on companies to be wildly successful. Further thoughts at my blog:


Posted by: Aaric Eisenstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 24, 2007 02:32 PM

Isn't the Internet itself the Kazaa of text?

The problem seems to be less the paucity of content and more the disconnectedness of the device.

Posted by: EliezerIsrael [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 5, 2007 04:37 PM

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