Are all Kindle competitors taking the wrong approach?

The Kindle has probably had a pretty good Thanksgiving Weekend. It’s certainly had a pretty good three years.

As we head into December there’s something about all the Kindle Killers and eBook-Market-stealers and ‘better than Kindle’ Kindle competitors that’s worth considering – None of them is actually trying to replace the book.  

The Kindle replaces the book

If you try to figure out what the Kindle’s unique selling proposition is you run into a bit of a problem.

The Kindle isn’t like any other electronic device. It’s not very shiny and it doesn’t do a lot of things and it’s not going to help you show off. It doesn’t do ‘new gadget’ things and it’s not focused on color or touch or jazzy new technology. It’s not the flavor of the month and it’s not ‘new’ and it’s not trying to be.

Perhaps the reason the Kindle isn’t like any other electronic device is that it isn’t one. It’s just a book – a new, evolved form but a book nonetheless.

Amazon and the Lab 126 team are replacing the book and they’re not pretending that people will drop something they’re comfortable with and move over to a completely new something else.

So the Kindle tries very hard to replicate the reading experience – it uses eInk, it tries its best to fade into the background, it doesn’t let you do anything other than read, it focuses you on reading, and it tries its best to duplicate a physical book.

People who complain the Kindle isn’t a book don’t realize how similar it is

You hear people complain about how the Kindle doesn’t smell like a book and it doesn’t look like a book. 

Well, the Kindle can’t smell like a book and it can’t look like a book. It’s not made of paper and wax.

What the Kindle can do, and what it does do very well, is replicate the reading experience. The Kindle duplicates the reading experience you would have with a book and that’s far more meaningful than the smell of wax and ink.

So, Amazon has taken the Kindle and turned it into something that mimics the book reading experience very well. eInk is a huge part of it as is the focus on reading. You get lots of book-like features – long battery life, compactness, portability, simplicity, independence from other devices.

Set aside all the extrinsics and you find that most of the intrinsics of the book reading experience are there.

Some Kindle Competitors are trying to get rid of the book

If you look at the Nook Color or the iPad or at the iPhone you get a very different message – Get rid of books. You don’t really need them. Try something else.

If you disagree consider the weight these devices are putting on color and animation and video. If they were trying to replicate books they wouldn’t care about animation or video one tiny bit. They care so much about non-reading things because they feel the book is ancient and should be thrown away and replaced with some multimedia monstrosity that spoils a good story by having low quality video and cheesy animations.

Books = Think Different, Non-Books = Think What We Want You to Think

Take a look at the Alice in Wonderland story app for iPad that was being touted as a big deal.

Would you rather have your kids imagine what Alice looks like when she’s growing and shrinking or would you rather they have it spoonfed to them with over the top animations?

A lot of these devices are approaching books from a TV mentality – let’s show people, let’s advertise to them, let’s inculcate desire, let’s introduce homogeneity. A non-book is simply an image created to further some other goal.

A book paints a story as a rough outline – your imagination fills in everything.

When we discard books for non-books, which have images and video and which flesh out the story completely, there’s nothing left for the reader to do. We aren’t even readers at that point – we’re passive consumers.

We aren’t ‘enriching’ books by overloading them with multimedia. We’re discarding their best part – our imaginations.

The Kindle is excellent at the Imagination part

The Kindle replicates the two qualities of the book that make it so great for exercising our imaginations –

  1. There are only words – The story lets you fill in all the details. 
  2. There are no distractions – You can commit to the story.

None of the multitude of tablets and smartphones which supposedly ‘destroy/kill/maim/murder/castrate/decapitate/flagellate’ the Kindle every few months have either of these two crucial qualities.

People who truly want to use their imaginations will choose books or Kindles.

Of course, we have LCD-compatible, never-distracted superhumans amongst us whose eyes burn so brightly that LCD screens seem dim and actually improve their sleep habits. For them, Tablets are perfect. Us humans – we need books or something that replicates books.

The Kindle isn’t going to be beaten by a device that is trying to destroy books. You might sell 50 million TV-watching, Game-playing tablets and call them eReaders – that doesn’t change a thing.

No Tablet is ever going to replace books. It might destroy books – it’s definitely not going to replace them.

That leaves us with the dedicated eInk Readers from Sony, B&N, and other companies. Fortunately for Amazon, all these ‘Kindle Killers’ are making a very fundamental mistake.

The Kindle makes everything easy and convenient – just like a book

When you have a book with you – you can read it anytime, you never have to worry about battery life, you don’t need a computer, you don’t need to start it up, you don’t need a WiFi hotspot, if you’re into the book you don’t really care what’s going on around you or in the world. It’s easy to forget everything else and get lost in the book.

It’s very easy. There’s no friction. There are no distractions. The battery never runs out.

There are also no additional charges – You don’t have to pay per use or for bandwidth or for anything else.

The Kindle is mimicking that. Battery life is weeks. Everything except reading is terrible so there are no distractions. Everything is easy. You don’t need a computer. Books download in 60 seconds – You don’t even have time to go check the mail while you’re waiting. The dictionary is built-in. There are no wireless charges.

Basically, the Kindle is doing its best to be as easy and convenient as a physical book.

It misses out in some areas (durability, low price, free sharing) and improves on the book in other areas (carrying thousands of books, in-built dictionary, reference, search).

Rival eReaders are losing out by being difficult to use

Consider the Nook – It added a touchscreen to show book covers and for navigation.

What book needs a touchscreen?

99% of the time you’re doing page turns. You don’t need a touchscreen. You also don’t need to be able to see book covers in color. That’s replicating a supermarket book display shelf – not replicating a book.

 

A book is simple, Nook isn’t

A book is painfully simple to use – you open it and start reading. That’s it.

With the Nook 1 you have difficult to use menus and the touchscreen-eInk discord – It’s complicated and it’s just not a very book-like experience.

Only a non-book would require a computer

Lots of people defend the Sony Reader and say it takes them 30 seconds to load a book from their computer. That’s not the point. The point is that they have to use a computer. .

It’s not about laziness. It’s about having to do a very non-book thing with something that’s supposed to replace your books. Imagine if every book had to be taken to a computer before you could start reading it.

The Sony Readers simply don’t care about convenience – If you want to add a note you have to go into a special mode. That’s the most non-book like thing they could have possibly come up with. Imagine if your book required you to transform it into a special form to be able to take notes in it. Then you had to press a special button to be able to highlight. Then another special button to turn pages.

It’s a mockery of the simplicity of a book.

Kindle rivals need to take the path of least resistance

eReader companies have very different perspectives on how to make a great eReader.

  1. Sony thinks – How can we make a great electronic device to read books on? What cool features can we add? Can we add a touchscreen?   
  2. Sony is so engrossed in making a great electronic device it doesn’t figure out that page turn buttons make more sense on the side. There are a dozen other small but important details Sony misses because it’s not really thinking about replacing books.
  3. B&N thinks – Let’s match a lot of the Kindle’s features. Let’s add a lot of the features that Kindle owners are asking for.
  4. B&N is so focused on replicating the Kindle and then improving on it that it forgets – It’s supposed to replicate a book and not the Kindle. B&N’s focus on one-upping the Kindle results in the complicated, hard to use interface. It wants to beat the Kindle by having lots of options and a touchscreen but it forgets that a book has neither.

The path of least resistance is to simply make a book. Not a Kindle killer. Not a beautiful ‘Sony’ electronic device that happens to be an eReader. A book.

All these companies are trying to replace books and yet they are focused on making electronic gadgets. They have to make something as simple as a book and yet they keep finding ways to add complexity.

There isn’t really a true Kindle competitor

iPad is trying for a bit of a paradigm shift – It wants to replace books and reading with something else entirely. Same for smartphones and Android Tablets.

Nook Color is a great device that misses out on the two things that most make eReaders like books – eInk and a lack of distractions.

Nook 1 and the new Sony Readers miss out on the simplicity aspect and the fact that they are replicating books and not making shiny electronic gadgets.

The Kindle is, unfortunately, the only eReader that’s actually trying to replicate books. At some level it’s a sort of respect for readers – We know you love books and you love to read. We aren’t going to tell you that your reading and your books ought to share the stage with something you don’t like to do. We’re just going to try and make what a book would be like if it were invented in the 21st century.

Kindle might face serious competition next month – Google

It seems that the Kindle suddenly has to take on a new competitor – one that doesn’t even have an eReader to sell.

Thanks to Robert for the update –

Google Inc. is in the final stages of launching its long-awaited e-book retailing venture, Google Editions, a move that could shake up the way digital books are sold.The long-delayed venture—Google executives had said they hoped to launch this summer—recently has cleared several technical and legal hurdles, people close to the company say. It is set to debut in the U.S. by the end of the year and internationally in the first quarter of next year,

Original Article – Google Set to Launch eBook Venture.

If the article is right, and there’s no guarantee it is, Google has negotiated all the legal hurdles and is going to release Google Editions in the US in end 2010 and internationally in early 2011.

Kindle in Danger – The Huge Threat of Google Editions

Well, there are a few things about its newest competitor that should really worry Amazon –

  1. More Exposure – Every single search and video and map and email that has a reference to books will get a link to a Kindle Store competitor. More people will know about Google Editions than about Kindle Store.
  2. More Exposure Part 2 – For some strange reason all the independent bookstores think they can get into the digital book market via Editions. It’s an interesting tie-up and it’ll give Google a ton of exposure with bibliophiles.
  3. Download-free reading – It’s a competitor that will offer books in the browser. It’s not clear how this will work – There’s a chance it might have some big advantages over downloading books.
  4. Every Device Works – It’s browser-based so it’ll work from every device. Plus users don’t have to download a special app.
  5. Use What You Have – Google may very well push the ‘you don’t have to buy a Kindle, just read on whatever device you already have’ angle.
  6. Across most eReaders – Google might tie up with each and every eReader company not named Amazon or B&N. Sony seems to be the prime candidate to hand over its book store channel to Google.
  7. Free of Amazon’s controls – Since its browser-based there’s no way Amazon can stop Kindle owners from buying and reading Google’s books. It might block sites over 3G but over WiFi it can’t do anything.
  8. Wider Range of Books – All signs point to Google having more books. No idea what’s going on with the big settlement but a decision might be close. It’ll be the first time a store will have more new ebooks available than Amazon.
  9. Possibly Lower Prices – It’s quite likely that Google will be super aggressive on pricing and will try to under-cut Amazon. Perhaps it’ll be via value (sharing, resale, something else), perhaps it’ll be just cheaper prices.
  10. More Money – Google will also be the first company selling ebooks that has larger cash reserves than Amazon. Please note that we’re not considering Apple because it isn’t really selling books seriously.
  11. Possibly Orphan Works – If the big book settlement goes through Google will have access to a huge store of Orphan Works.

It’s a huge danger for Amazon. It’ll be interesting to see what Mr. Bezos and the Kindle team do to counter it.

There are three vectors of attack that Amazon will have to defend against.

Three main threats to Amazon

The first main threat to Amazon is that lots of people will hear about Google Editions and at the same time not know about Kindle or that there are Kindle reading apps. A lot more people do searches and use Google than the Amazon main site. So a huge number of people are going to think ‘eBook = Google Editions’. This threat can’t be understated – If you aren’t even on the customer’s radar you have zero chance.

The second main threat to Amazon is that a large portion of casual readers are going to prefer books in their browser over the hassle of a custom reading app or a custom device. Amazon has prepared itself for this (they have a Kindle Book Preview in HTML feature they’ll expand into reading in the browser). However, the association of Kindle with a device you buy or a reading app you download is very strong. The path of least resistance is browser reading and Google gets a big edge because it becomes the ‘read in your browser’ option.

The third main threat to Amazon is that the combination of the WebKit browser and WiFi on the latest Kindles means that new Kindle owners can access Google’s books freely. With every other ebook store the books had DRM and Amazon didn’t support the DRM or the format. What’s Amazon going to do to stop a browser-based solution? What can it do?

We’ll look at what Amazon could do to counter Google Editions in a later thread. Let’s conclude this post by taking a look at Amazon’s strengths.

Amazon’s strengths – Things Google Editions will struggle against

Amazon and Kindle do have quite a few strengths –

  1. 5 million or so Kindle owners and another few million users of Kindle Apps. These users aren’t going to leave the Kindle and the Kindle Store unless a notably better solution appears.  
  2. People who love books and read a lot or would like to read more would always want a dedicated reading device. We’re excluding the LCD-compatibles. People also wouldn’t want a device made by one company working with a store run by another company as there are always integration problems.
  3. Years and years of customer data. Amazon knows what book readers want and has a treasure trove of data. Google has a lot of information on what readers search for and Amazon has a lot of information on what readers buy and read.
  4. Customer Service. Amazon has excellent customer service – Have no idea what Google’s customer service is like.
  5. Focus on Books. Amazon is very focused on books and it’s unlikely Google will bring the same level of focus.
  6. No Fragmentation. Amazon can make sure the reading experience is very similar across all its apps and that users don’t have to keep re-learning how things work. How is any company going to be able to get IE, Safari, and Firefox to behave the same?
  7. Not having to share a cut with Device Manufacturers and Book Store Owners. It’s safe to assume that all the devices that will add support for Google Editions will get a cut – as will all the book stores that sell Google Editions.  
  8. Kindle = Reading. The common perception is that the Kindle is the best choice for reading and Kindle Store is the best choice for eBooks. Google will have to fight against this.
  9. WhisperNet. Amazon has put together a nice collection of services – sync your place in a book across devices, sync highlights and notes, check on popular highlights, and so forth. It is a pretty big advantage.
  10. International reach. You have to imagine it’ll take Google at least a year or two to get the International Publishing contracts in place. There’s a slight possibility everything is already done and there really will be a full launch in early 2011 – that would be super impressive.
  11. Potentially the Kindle App Store. If Amazon plays it right it could get enough reading related apps that the Kindle becomes even more of an advantage over the browser. 

Might have missed out a few advantages.

For any company other than Microsoft, Google, and Apple – Amazon is almost unbeatable. However, these three companies have the money, technical skills, and power to take on Amazon. Apple hasn’t really focused on books so it’s no longer a huge threat. Microsoft probably doesn’t want to enter a market that’s so competitive. That leaves Google and, unfortunately for Amazon, it has decided to jump right in.

It’s a difficult test for Amazon and there are sure to be some nasty surprises. Kindle sales to the core group of Kindle owners and regular book buyers should be mostly unaffected – On the other hand, Amazon’s Kindle sales to casual readers and the revenue stream from Kindle book sales (to casual and hardcore readers) are in massive danger.

Google has, in some ways, approached it perfectly. It’s not making the hard investment of making an eReader – it’s leaving the core eReader market alone. It’s just going for the book sales – book sales to everyone. If it manages to stay focused on books for 2 to 3 years it could easily eat up 30% of the eBook market.

We’re basically seeing the eBooks and eReader markets break up into segments – Nook Color threatens to steal casual readers and Google Editions threatens to steal book sales to casual and hardcore readers. The Kindle really needs some help and it might be time for a Kindle Tablet.

Services that would add value to Kindle ownership

The disappearance of kindle free book offers earlier today got me thinking about services the Kindle could benefit from.

Trying to go as broad as possible so there might be some crazy ideas included.

Kindle value-add services

Here are some services that would go well with the Kindle –

  1. Auto-buy option for free book offers in certain categories. So you might say – the minute there’s a free romance novel just buy it for me.
  2. Kindle to Kindle social network.
  3. Kindle to Kindle Book Lending Help Features – These could be built into the social network.
  4. Kindle Book Deals section in Kindle Store with the option to get updates to your Kindle for categories and criteria you choose.
  5. Alerts for when a book’s price drops. This should be baked into the Kindle Store and into the Kindle itself.  
  6. Reminder when battery is 50% and when it’s 25%.
  7. Option to either share collections across all Kindles or have separate Collections per Kindle.
  8. A PC tool optimized for shopping and doing various Kindle related things. It would have sections for Deals, Free Books, Public Domain Books, Organizing Collections, Organizing Photos, and so forth.
  9. Statistics on books that were finished most often (as opposed to bought most often).
  10. Gift suggestions based on the books you’ve bought and read. These would be added to your account – An automatic wishlist.
  11. Migrate and Clone functions. This could be via the PC tool or via the Settings Page. This would migrate all your books from one Kindle to another without you having to download them one by one. The Clone feature would be if you wanted your new Kindle to get a copy of everything that is in your old Kindle – documents, photos, everything.
  12. Kindle to kindle messaging. Perhaps even chat.
  13. Budget Alert – Set a monthly budget and get alerts when you hit 50%, 75%, and 100%. Option to switch off buying when you exceed your budget. Currently you can do this via kindle gift cards – Buy a $50 card and apply that to your account and then disable your credit card. However, it’s too complicated a process.
  14. Official Kindle Forum alerts sent straight to your Kindle – Pick discussion topics or keywords and get updates when discussions related to these start.
  15. User Sharable Edit Lists – Users could create an edit list that is a layer that goes over a Kindle book and corrects typos. Then you could share out your list of corrections so other users who buy the book can get an error free version.
  16. User Sharable Kindle Tips – If a user finds a very good tip she ought to have an easy way to share it with other Kindle owners.
  17. Group Discount Site – Groupon for books. If 2,000 Kindle owners are interested in buying the same book then they can contact the Author/Publisher and ask for a 25% discount for a group purchase. Publishers can offers various deals to users – deals that come into effect if a certain minimum number of users sign up for the deal.

Those are some Kindle services and features that would probably add a lot of value to the Kindle ownership experience. The interesting thing is that a lot of these are features that only Amazon can add. There isn’t really a way for developers to provide services to Kindle owners directly. It’s good as it’s more secure than letting anyone do anything and it’s bad as it makes it really difficult to build services.

Let’s look at a couple of features in-depth to understand the benefits and possible disadvantages.

Automatic Migrate and Clone Tool

Assume you’re a Kindle 2 owner who buys a Kindle 3.

Well, you have to start from scratch and have to download your books one by one. It’s quite simple to do it from the Manage My Kindle page if you have a small number of books. However, if you have hundreds or thousands of books it’s pretty time-consuming.

If Amazon added a Migrate feature or let someone make an app of that sort (it’s not currently possible as apps don’t have access to the user’s Archive) then all you would have to do is click ‘Migrate’ and all the books that are on your Kindle 2 would get automatically downloaded to your Kindle 3 with the same Folder structure and the same highlights and notes.

The downside is that there’s a lot of data involved and a high cost in terms of bandwidth. It’s understandable that Amazon doesn’t want to enable something that is a huge money sink. However, it could make the Migrate feature WiFi only or add a PC tool. That would take care of the bandwidth concerns.

The other downside is that this would make piracy easier. There’s probably no workaround for that.

Auto-Buy option for Free Kindle Books

What Amazon could do is let Kindle owners choose categories for which they want all free books that are offered. Any free books offered in those categories would automatically get purchased and downloaded to the user’s Kindle.

It could have an option to include public domain books and perhaps to even include books below a certain price point. Maybe it goes so far as to say –

  1. If any free book is offered in Historical Fiction. OR
  2. If any free public domain book is offered featuring the History of England. OR
  3. If any book by Dan or Don Brown hits below $4.

Then automatically buy it for my account and download it to my Kindle 2.

There are obviously a lot of downsides –

  1. Bandwidth costs. Here Amazon could limit it by either limiting the number of categories you can choose or by making it PC or WiFi download only.
  2. Kindle owners wouldn’t visit Amazon.com and Kindle Store as often. That’s a real downside and there’s no cure for that.
  3. If buying of non-free books is offered there’s scope for disaster. Perhaps we just leave out this functionality.
  4. If there are a limited number of copies available for a particular free book offer it would turn into a lottery. Perhaps users who search the Kindle store and the forums every day should have a natural advantage. On the other hand there’s little point in disappointing Kindle owners and perhaps ‘lottery’ type free book offers shouldn’t be allowed. Let publishers use free books for marketing but don’t let them use free books to buy sales rank.
  5. Less purchases of paid books. If Kindle owners started automatically getting each and every free kindle book offer they were interested in their paid purchases would probably go down. No workaround for this.

Amazon’s probably not going to add this feature because nearly all the downsides are important ones and are difficult to mitigate.

It’s unrealistic to expect Amazon to be able to get 100% or even 75% of the services and features listed at the start of this post. However, it’d be great if they could work in 25% or more of these features as these features would add a lot of value to the Kindle ownership experience.