New Kindle coming soon?

If you read the tea leaves--or between the lines of Amazon's recent announcements--signs point to the possibility of new Kindle hardware arriving in the near future.

Will Jeff Bezos hit the stage again next month to announce a new Kindle? David Carnoy/CNET

Most of the talk recently has been about Apple's looming event on January 27, where it's been widely reported that the company will unveil a tablet PC of some undetermined size. Whether this device is a game-changer along the lines of the original iPod or iPhone remains to be seen, but lost in the shuffle is the possibility that Amazon's breakthrough e-reader, the Kindle, may be on the verge of an upgrade.

To be clear, I don't have any inside information or anonymous sources telling me that Amazon's bought thousands of parts from some Taiwanese manufacturer. But let's speculate for a moment on the possibilities for a new Kindle and what it might look like.

For starters, the Kindle 2 (now called the Kindle, U.S. and international wireless, latest edition), was launched on February 9 of last year. That's relevant because in recent years Amazon has been doing its best to imitate Apple, and Apple tends to be fairly regimented in rolling out updates to its major products. For instance, new iPods tend to be announced in the fall, and new iPhones have been released in June.

You could argue that while Kindle has had upgrades to its wireless service (Amazon added an international option by moving from Sprint to AT&T) over the year--and the Kindle DX was released in May of 2009--the Kindle, now approaching a year old, is due for a bigger refresh in February, especially if Apple's slate proves to be the e-reader on steroids that many are positing it will. (As has been widely discussed, the potential big strike against the Apple tablet could be price. If it ends up being in $750-$1000 range, that's rather expensive for someone looking for a device you plan on primarily using as an e-reader).

How lethal Apple's tablet will be to the Kindle will largely be determined by pricing. Gizmodo

In the last couple of days, Amazon has also made a few announcements pointing to the possibility that a new device is coming. In describing the terms of its new higher 70 percent royalty for authors using its Digital Text Platform for publishing content in the Kindle Store, Amazon said that it was planning on adding new features to both the store and the Kindle.

The next day it followed up with an announcement that it was releasing a new software development kit (SDK) so developers could create new apps for the Kindle . In its release, the company referred to the new apps being tested on the simulators for the current 6-inch Kindle and Kindle DX, but it's debatable how suitable the current Kindles are for running apps, particularly when you factor in the lag times of E-ink.

The release also has a quote from an EA Games executive talking about developing games for the Kindle platform. Again, it doesn't seem as if E-ink and games mix too well--at least with the current generation of this technology, which is sluggish compared to traditional LCD screen technology. But when you're looking at more basic stuff like puzzles and Solitaire, I suppose there might be some minor appeal there. But ultimately it seems more logical that the Kindle platform is destined to evolve on more powerful, multifaceted devices.

The biggest rumor going around is that Amazon is planning to do a touch-screen Kindle that allows it to do away with the physical keyboard, replacing it with a virtual one, and shrinking the device a bit. This makes a lot of sense, but current touch-screen E-ink technology has its shortcomings (see Sony Touch Edition review) and it's unclear just when next-gen touch-screen e-readers will be commercially available. From what I saw at CES, it seemed as if we're looking at April or May for better touch-screen models that feature capacitive displays that are significantly more responsive to your touch, have higher contrast levels, and have little to no glare issues.

A color-screen device is definitely on the horizon, but it seems doubtful that Amazon will put out a color Kindle in the next few months--unless, of course, you count the fact that the Kindle app can run on PCs, the iPhone, iPod Touch, and in the future, Mac, Android and Blackberry devices. We'll have to wait whether Apple will allow Amazon to put its Kindle app on a new Apple iPad or whatever it's called, but all bets are off if Apple is interested in dominating the e-book market and decides to keep competitors off its device.

At CES, we did see a promising new highly reflective, energy-efficient color LCD technology from Mirasol , a company backed by Qualcomm, but that technology seemed months away from making it into a commercial device.

We'd actually like Amazon to bring out an e-reader that breaks the $200 barrier and we wouldn't mind seeing a Wi-Fi-only device that leaves off the 3G. We're not putting a huge amount of stock in that possibility, only because Amazon's trademark for its Kindle has been its ability to download content from anywhere you can get a cellular data connection. But bringing out a lower priced Kindle would help Amazon continue to broaden the e-reader market.

So should we expect a new Kindle announcement in February? It's certainly possible, but the more likely scenario is for something new--and truly next-gen--to drop this spring. The new royalty agreement is set to officially launch on June 30, and Amazon announced that it is inviting software developers to build and upload active content that will be available in the Kindle Store "later this year." That sounds like a midyear coming-out party to me.

When do you think a new Kindle will arrive? And what would you like to see Amazon do? Bring out an even more affordable e-reader? A touch-screen model? Color?

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