Is the Amazon Kindle a ‘tipping point’ product?

I’m a fan of the Amazon Kindle, however I feel sure the company would prefer that I keep my version of praise for the product to myself. And, to judge from some e-mail I’ve received knee-jerking past observations I’ve written about the device, some of my "fellow" fans of the Kindle also prefer I shut-the-praise up.

I guess I’m an enigma to traditional eBook/ePaper lovers because, get this, I like my Kindle but am less than convinced there is much a future for a dedicated eBook reading device. In other words, the love I have for my Kindle is the kind of love that only a mother of a, how can I say this?, unfortunate-looking baby could understand.

So as they typically draw arrows, why do I bring up this topic yet again ?

Because the New York Times today asks , "Is the electronic book approaching the tipping point?" The story reports on the confused ("energizing yet unnerving") response book industry people attending the giant "BookExpo" trade show had because someone (Amazon) has finally come up with an eBook reader and business model that may actually work.

Around ten years ago, I attended that very same trade show in Los Angeles. Ironically, eBooks were getting the same kind of unnerving response then. Also getting the same unnerving response the year I attended was Barnes & Noble and Amazon — the show is filled with independent booksellers who are perpetually unnerved by Barnes & Noble and Amazon — for everything.

As the New York Times story reports, eBooks have been around 40 years. And the concept of ePaper (thin displays that replicate the properties of real paper) is right up there with flying cars and TV watches as the most predicted technology never to make it to the mass market.

So, if by "tipping point," the New York Times writer means, has the eBook reader finally had a "proof of business concept," I’d have to answer that the Kindle is, yes, a tipping point product. However, I’d place it along side the Motorola brick phone in the "works-great-but-can-we-get-something-that-does-this-that-is-less-goofy" department?

And the Kindle tipping point moment came just in time, I might add. I think many in the digital book fan nation had all but given up on the mass-market viability of eBook readers.

In perhaps the most dramatic display of what I mean is the rather untimely release of the book "Print is Dead " by Jeff Gomez. I say "untimely" because it was published (on paper, no less) at precisely the same time as the Kindle was being announced — last November. Yet if one reads the book (as I have, on my Kindle), one is struck by the irony of how many thousands of words Gomez devotes to explaining why "the eBook revoluton didn’t happen." In a long chapter (7), Gomez, in effect, surrenders the notion that any eBook reader will ever succeed in order to support his central argument — that text delivered in a digital form will ultimately render paper and ink "dead."

So rather than helping Gomez prove his point that "print is dead," the success of the Kindle dramatically placed his technology forecasting credentials into question. (I’m sure he’ll reclaim his cred when he re-writes Chapter 7 for the Kindle version of the book — and takes out the "eBooks are doomed" part and that part where he quotes "the experts" who claim it will take a $1-$2 price point for eBooks to ever catch on.) (Later clarification: Despite my snarky comments regarding Gomez’ book, in general, I found that I agree with much of what he writes — except I still think the title is bad and, frankly, not what the book is truly about.)

So yes, I’m a Kindle lover who thinks, as I’ve said many times , while its hardware and interface design are inexcusably unfortunate (ugly-bad), its function (200 books in my briefcase) and the pricing of books one can purchase and download to it wirelessly (never having to attach it to a computer) makes me overlook the way I constantly lose my place in a book because of its peculiar button placement or the way the fricking back panel randomly falls off the device.

Yes, I love my Kindle — but here’s where I lose my invitation to join its fan club. I don’t think Amazon is going to be the long-term winner in the category. Like the Motorola brick, the Kindle is a great proof of concept. But in the end, the product that ultimately owns this category will be much, much more than a mere eBook reader using ePaper technology.

Bonus link: Thanks to Michael Turro (see comments) for pointing to this recent Gordon Crovitz column about the Kindle. Also, check out Michael’s post, as well.

  • Rex:
    I’m not so sure that books – long form prose – will ever have the kind of success in pixels that they have enjoyed in print. The characteristics of the book – the linear narrative, the singular perspective, the unilateral flow of frozen information – are the characteristics of print. The act of transferring words from the page to the screen is antagonistic to those characteristics. While for a short while the transfer may hold, it won’t be long before the characteristics unique to the digital medium will win out and the print traits of the digital book will fade away.

    The Kindle is hot now though… aside from the Times piece, the Wall Street Journal did a piece a few weeks back. My response to that article (which touches on these themes) is here:

  • Michael, that’s an awesome post you pointed to.

  • Rex…your Kindle is breathtaking. (If you get that reference, you’re like me and watch too much TV.) 🙂

  • Okay, Cole. I give. If it’s not on Lost or House or the DYI channel, I’m pop-culturally illiterate.

  • Seinfeld, Rex. Seinfeld. 😉

  • Okay, Cole. With the help of Google and Wikipedia, I now get the “breathtaking” reference:

  • Great posts both, Rex and Michael. I will add this, having not read Gomez’s book or any of the articles y’all are referencing….

    I agree with you, Rex, that your version of the Kindle would be much more likely to have mass consumer appeal. Partly because the Kindle has not yet transcended the print experience. I think a few websites out there are starting to figure this out, pulling in graphic, audio and video in ways that start to. And I would argue the main point is not to use the web, a Kindle, an iPod, the new new thing in order to transcend the printed word per se, but instead, to convey ideas in a different and new way.

    And when we do begin to do that — to share ideas in new ways — I still think there will be a use for books. But I think there won’t be a use for as many books. I would argue that most business books today are a website, masquerading as a book because they think it will be easier to monetize their ideas that way.

    I think the novel will continue to exist for a long time, but I’ve really been wanting the novel to also figure out how to tell stories in an interactive way that would be possible online. But I don’t think the paper itself is necessary for most non-fiction, perhaps excepting biography for quite some time.

  • Oy, Rex, this post is so apologetic or defensive or both that it’s a little hard on the brain. It’s your blog — no need to be so sorry that people disagree with you. So, to voice my latest disagreement with you, are we supposed to believe that Motorola didn’t earn billions and billions of dollars as they perfected their hardware device that started out kind of clunky, limited and overpriced?

    What I don’t get about your take is that your problems with the Kindle are all easily solved while your raves about the device’s functionality and its surrounding business model are here to stay, as Bezos has been saying all over the place lately. Even this first generation Kindle’s not perfect but it’s darn good. And while we still disagree about whether Apple could get many publishers on board for its own proprietary e-book service or device, I don’t see how Amazon isn’t a long-term winner either way.