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Amazon Kindle: Wait for the sequel?

Amazon has launched its Kindle eBook device, but first impressions are that it needs a lot of refinement.

Amazon Kindle
Sarah Tew/CNET Networks

Amazon has announced its entry into the eBook reader category with Kindle.

It's not in many people's hands yet or mine (CNET's reviewers have some first impressions), so these will have to be preliminary remarks. But I can say that I find it a schizophrenic device and hard to understand what it is trying to accomplish in its current form. It's easy enough to see where it's going, but ambition seems to have got ahead of what Amazon could actually deliver in the near term, and the ambition was not updated for reality. As a result, it comes across as very much a work in progress that lacks the elusive sexiness that can carry interesting yet unfinished products when they first come into the market.

First, it seems geared toward book geeks and authors, not the mainstream mass market. The price is too high for the hardware, and the price of downloaded books (nicely handled it seems, sans PC via cell phone network) is not that much less than what you will find the same book in hard copy on Amazon itself. More on that later.

The value proposition seems to be about carrying lots of books around in a device that does not grow physically in size, and for spur-of-the-moment purchases achieved through the wireless capability that does not require a monthly subscription. But much of Amazon's legacy has been built on delayed satisfaction--in other words, paying less to wait for delivery, rather than paying more and going to get it at a brick and mortar store right away. And they've been very successful at that, so it's unclear whether a mainstream market is really hankering for getting a book right now. Book geeks and authors, perhaps, but not most people.

OK, so perhaps the device has other compelling capabilities that outweigh more conventional books? The screen looks pretty good, a black on light gray "e-ink" type display that has high resolution and good contrast and supposedly works well outdoors. It looks like the screen in the Sony Reader, so it has competitive parity there. Battery life is supposedly days in duration, again similar to Sony's. However, because there is no backlight you cannot use it in the dark, so Amazon anachronistically offers an accessory clip-on reading light just you would use for a book!

But it's in the look and feel where things really fall apart. The industrial design is, frankly, ugly. It has none of the visceral "gotta have it I don't care what it costs" appeal of an iPod or iPhone. The Sony Reader is rather bland but it looks good next to Kindle (the Reader is also smaller and lighter with the same size screen). There is a gray grippy area on the back with a random pattern of embossed letters molded into it--an amusing detail but not particularly iconic. The whole design is unresolved and dated looking, with unsophisticated form, surface, color, and graphic detailing. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says that the goal was to make it nonflashy as a design. Well, mission accomplished there, but it goes beyond nonflashy to be actually unattractive, at least to my eyes.

The keyboard on the Kindle is a real puzzle--it looks '80s old school and not at all up to scratch in a BlackBerry and Treo world. It is also very large and fixed in place, but if you're reading fiction and light nonfiction, then there's relatively little need to type. A slide-out keyboard like IM-centric slider cell phones have would been far better.

A keyboard is much more useful for blog and newspaper reading, and the ambition of providing a "BlackBerry for blogs," as Guy Kawasaki calls Kindle, is compelling for heavy blog readers. But here, the ambition overreaches the realities of the shipping device, as blogs without color photos, embedded YouTube videos, and links to external sites are far less interesting (since there's no general purpose wireless data connection, normal Web surfing is impossible). And for the privilege of reading an inferior version of a blog, you actually pay 99 cents per month per blog.

The large buttons along the side of the device for flipping pages also look pretty old school in an iPhone world and seem like they will be easy to hit accidentally. There is a huge "Next Page" button on the right, and a large "Previous Page" button on the left, following the left-back/right-forward convention...except there's also a small Next Page button on the left too. Schizophrenic. Is Jeff Bezos left-handed?

Lastly we come to pricing: $399 for the device itself on its face seems expensive given the quality of the hardware compared with what you get in less expensive MP3 players and cell phones that do, for the lay person, basically the same thing if not more. Book downloads themselves on Kindle cost $9.99. Compare that with an average price of about $15 for the books on Amazon's Best of 2007 book list, and you'd have to buy 80 books to make up the difference in price between hard copy and Kindle reader, plus downloads. That's a lot of books, more than most mainstream readers will buy over quite a few years. The capacity of Kindle is about 200 books, and that is more books than some people will ever own in their lifetime. So unless you put a high premium on portability, the hardware price is a big hurdle. Again, the pricing seems set up more for book geeks and authors who will read far more than the mass market audience.

Inevitably the iPod is a point of comparison. It was decried as too expensive when it launched, but it succeeded because it took a systems approach to solving the heretofore complex problem of getting my music onto my MP3 player, and because it looked damn good doing it. James Patterson, best-selling author and endorser of Kindle, claims it simplifies life, but I'm not clear how difficult people find it to purchase a book or magazine in a store, or to order a book online, have it delivered to their house, open the box, and start reading. That would be more OK if the device was so screamingly evocative, so sleek, so thin, so gorgeous, so mind-blowingly innovative to use that you would knock over your grandmother in the mad dash out the door to get one. But sadly, it is none of these things. Instead, it feels like Jeff Hawkins' Foleo--not a bad idea, but 5 to 10 years too late both in concept and execution.

In a video Bezos talks about how much effort and thought went into Kindle. Firsthand experience will have to be the true test, but right now this seems like a half-baked product. At 4:51 into the video, there is the book "Fiasco" prominently shown next to the Kindle. Hopefully this is not a foreshadowing of what is in store for Kindle.