Is The Kindle a Failure?

Kevin Maney’s analysis in the Atlantic points to yes:

A year ago–six months after the Kindle hit the market–I talked with Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, for a book I was writing. He told me sales of the Kindle were sizzling. But that’s not quite the
case if you really look at numbers
. While Amazon did sell out of
Kindles in 2008, it hadn’t actually made that many of them. In fact,
according to the market research firm In-Stat, the entire e-reader
market consisted of just 1 million units in all of 2008, and Amazon
nabbed only a slice of it. By contrast, Microsoft sold about 1 million Zune music players from mid-2007 to mid-2008, though the product was widely considered to be a failure.

It’s an interesting point of view, but one I don’t think should guide the discussion into what’s next for print. First, the comparison of the Kindle to the Zune isn’t a good one – the Zune launched in a very mature product sector with a clear market winner, the Kindle is attempting to effectively create a new market by fundamentally changing the dynamics of reading and publishing.

A better comparison would be between the Kindle and an old RCA Lyra MP3 player. RCA was out of the gate before the iPod and never had a blockbuster success, but helped define the market itself by recognizing the need for digital audio players. That’s where Amazon is at, though I’ll bet they stick with it longer.

Maney’s main point, though, is that the Kindle attempts to create superior experience and convenience, but in the process succeeds at neither. And this is true – the Kindle is not the last (or for most people, even the first) e-reader you’ll ever own. But the idea that sparked the Kindle remains true: paper is a medium ill-equipped for the requirements of information flow in the 21st century.

Personally, I like to hold a book in my hand, and the Kindle’s product team recognizes that the physicality of books is part of their value.

Bezos and his core team devoted months, beginning in 2004, to analyzing
the appeal of the book and to understanding why books have dominated
the delivery of long-form narratives, stories, and information for 550
years. “We even got into how books smell,” Bezos told me. “We did
research, and found that the smell is mostly glue – glue and maybe
mildew. We joked that maybe we should have a spritzer on the [Kindle]
that would send out that smell.” All in all, Bezos said, the team found
that trying to improve on the book “was one of the most absurd
challenges.”

But what’s not being talked about is something I see as obvious: the Kindle *is* an ideal replacement for newspapers and magazines. The generation of people who rarely pick up a physical paper rarely cite cost as their reason – they talk about inconvenience, lack of time, etc. For this, the Kindle is an ideal replacement. The day’s (or hour’s) news and opinion pre-loaded into your e-reader effortlessly. What could be more convenient and elegant?

Despite its flaws, the Kindle has solved some key technological and market challenges, teaching lessons for the next (and presumably better) generation of e-readers. Wireless, seamless delivery is one of the biggest. That should be driving sales of newspapers, weeklies, and magazines. From there, the market will only grow.

Update: Check out Paul Graham’s Post-Medium Publishing, the best essay I’ve read related to this.

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