Kindle: Great gift for Washington's Birthday?

Amazon's e-book reader, out of stock for Christmas, may be the best thing that ever happened to the market, but it may also be the biggest obstacle to the ultimate success of e-books.

Peter Glaskowsky
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Peter Glaskowsky
3 min read

As reported by The Wall Street Journal this week, Amazon.com's e-book reader, the Kindle, is out of stock.

The Journal credits Oprah Winfrey, who recommended the Kindle on her show in October.

I saw this effect myself in the page views for old blog posts here--the daily view count for some of my old Kindle posts, especially my comparison of the Kindle with Sony's Reader, spiked the very next day, and it remains higher today than it was before that show aired.

Amazon's Web site reports delivery delays of 11 weeks to 13 weeks, which means that it might even come as late as Washington's Birthday (to be celebrated February 16).

Amazon's Kindle e-book reader.
Amazon's Kindle e-book reader. Amazon.com

The larger message in the Journal article is that the Kindle's success proves that "e-book readers are for real," which is a conclusion about which I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I think that many of us knew that already. On the other, sales of Kindle-compatible e-books are still trivial, compared with sales of paper books, so what has really been proved?

I think that all we can really say today about e-books is that they're good for some people. We don't really know how much demand there is for e-books, as they exist today, because market awareness still isn't very high outside the usual "early adopter" community.

But I know one thing for sure: there's a lot of room for improvement. The Kindle's apparent successor has been spotted online, Sony's third-generation Reader was recently released, and I wrote about a good-looking prototype e-book reader from Plastic Logic in September.

All three of these are improvements over the current Kindle in various ways, but they all fall short of the economy, robustness, and readability of paper books.

It seems to me that at this rate, it could be 20 years before e-books begin to outsell paper books.

However popular the Kindle is, it can never address the whole market, as long as it's so closely associated with one bookseller. Without a single dominant platform, we'll never get a single commercial standard for e-book distribution. At the Baen Free Library, Project Gutenberg, and independent e-book sellers such as eBooks.com, customers face an excessive variety of format choices.

For this reason, I'm almost sorry that Amazon sells the Kindle under its own name. I understand why the online retailer chose to develop the Kindle--anything the company can do to promote book sales is good, in the long run--but it might have been better if the Kindle design had been licensed to multiple competing suppliers.

Frankly, I think that even Sony might dump its proprietary platform, if Amazon were more open with the Kindle. My guess is that Sony's Reader business has yet to break even, and given the competition from the Kindle's superior features and celebrity endorsements, it could be a long time before it does.

The Kindle has the potential to become the standard e-book platform, with commercial e-books from Amazon's Kindle store, Amazon's own Web site for free Mobipocket books, and support for direct online downloads from independent Web sites (see Manybooks.net and Feedbooks.com, for example).

It would also be good to see more competition among suppliers of e-book display technology. E Ink owns the whole market, and the company's progress to date has been fairly slow. Sony's third-generation PRS-700 uses an E Ink display virtually identical to that found in the original PRS-500, which came out more than two years ago.

The sooner we reach the point of sub-$100 readers, the sooner we can build a multimillion-customer market for e-books, and the sooner we can start talking seriously about how "e-book readers are for real."