What the next Kindle will look like

Those waiting for a Kindle Color will probably have to wait a while. CNET's David Carnoy ponders what Amazon's next Kindle might look like and what screen technology it might use.

To get the Kindle smaller, Amazon will probably have to move to a touch screen and ditch the keyboard. Sarah Tew/CNET

After Barnes & Noble unveiled its Nook Color e-reader recently, I got a few e-mails from folks asking me what I thought Amazon.com was up to and whether Jeff Bezos had some sort of color device up his sleeve. I'd written an article a few months back about a possible Amazon Android tablet and they wanted to know whether they should opt for the Nook Color or wait for an Amazon tablet. Did I know if a Kindle Color was coming soon?

Well, for starters, I don't think we'll see a color e-reader from Amazon this year--or probably anytime soon. I think Amazon really sees the iPad as its color e-reader of the moment. A lot of people are using the Kindle app on the iPad (and iPhone), even though Apple has iBooks. Of course, Barnes & Noble also has a Nook app for the iPad, and Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo want their customers to know they can tap into one of these platforms from a variety of devices and share e-books across those devices. I can't tell you what percentage of iPad owners are using the Kindle app to shop for e-books, but I'd guess it's a fairly large number, judging from my informal poll of colleagues and friends and my own use (I rarely use iBooks and have both Kindle and Nook accounts).

Barnes & Noble has been smart enough to price its "reader's" tablet at $249, which is pretty reasonable. However, while that's half the price of the entry-level iPad, the fact is that Apple is still going to sell a ton of iPads this holiday season and Amazon will be quite content to have those buyers download the Kindle app. After all, it's much easier to deal with software than hardware, and if you have the design geniuses at Apple serving up the hardware for you, it's a win-win. Next April, Apple will have a new iPad--presumably with a better screen--and despite Steve Jobs saying the company wasn't doing an iPad Mini, there's still the distinct possibility of a smaller iPad, perhaps with a 7-inch screen.

So if Amazon appears willing to let others do much of its hardware dirty work for it, what's the road map for Amazon-branded Kindle devices?

Naturally, there's a big difference between what we'd like to see and what might actually come to pass, but judging from its ads , Amazon appears to be a big proponent of e-ink (as am I for the most part) and will most likely continue in this vein with its next-generation Kindle.

Currently, the Kindle is our top-rated e-reader, based on the combination of its compact size, next-generation "Pearl" e-ink screen, affordable price, and improved performance both in terms of battery life and page-turn speed. What's interesting is that the jump from the earlier Kindle 2 to the third generation was a nice step forward, though not a huge leap, and we're not sure how much more Amazon can get out of the current design. Yes, it could improve performance slightly, shave a little weight off, and increase the built-in memory (unlike many other e-readers, no Kindle devices have memory expansion capabilities.) But to a large degree, the Kindle--in its current form--seems to have reached its potential, much as the iPod Nano did a few generations ago.

Amazon could go in a couple of directions. If you're looking for design improvements in a monochrome e-ink e-reader, check out Sony's new Readers, the PRS-350 Pocket Edition and PRS-650 Touch Edition, which feature a touch-screen interface that now works well. It's hard not to fantasize about a touch-screen Kindle that strips out the keyboard and trims the device down a good inch or more. The fact is, to go any smaller, Amazon probably needs to ditch the keyboard (it already has removed the number keys.) We also think that a touch-screen interface is the future for e-readers, especially as more of the world moves to touch-screen smartphones and gets accustomed to navigating devices that way. I've witnessed so many people, when handling the Kindle or Nook for the first time, putting their fingers on the screen and seeming disappointed to find it doesn't respond.

Unfortunately, to implement a touch screen properly on an e-ink reader simply costs more, and the price of the aforementioned Sony Readers is higher than those of both the Kindle and Nook, even though neither features any sort of wireless connectivity. However, in the not-so-distant future, prices for these types of displays should come down a bit, and Amazon could possibly put one out next year with wireless connectivity for less than $200. At the same time, it could lower the price of the existing Kindle, edging it toward that magical $99 price point that everybody likes to talk about. However, as long as there's steady demand at the current prices, there's no reason for Amazon to go lower.

And what about more exotic color-screen technologies such as Mirasol and Pixel Qi? Yes, we're supposed to see devices with these more energy-efficient displays (which don't get washed out in bright sunlight) next year, but we'll have to wait and see how much they actually cost. Anything more than $250 is a hard sell in the dedicated e-reader space, which is why I think monochrome e-ink is going to be a mainstay of Amazon's e-readers for a while. But if e-ink it is, I hope it's with a touch-screen interface. And I hope the Kindle Touch has Wi-Fi and 3G for $189 next year.

What do you think?

 

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