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.

23 thoughts on “Are all Kindle competitors taking the wrong approach?”

  1. I love all the info you give about what is going on in the kindle land. I dont want my kindle to change fundamentaly. Nd neither do most kindle readers. I got my kindle to read on not game on or watch movies on or ect. I dont want to be like i was at work and not be able to see for half hour after spending two hours on a report. I tell everyone about my kindle. and quite a few people i know have bought them. especially for children with dyslexia. the text to speech whle reazding stimulates more parts of the brain. Kindle doesx need to put in some easier parental controls. dont want the kids to keep hitting the buy button.

    1. I agree, and your points echo why I’m glad that the Kindle has very few apps: For me they would be distraction from the primary reason I got a Kindle, reading.

      At some point I hope that Amazon DOES have a color tablet and I would be willing to consider that at that time (Mirasol anyone?), but I would hope that a large part of the emphsis of said future device would still be reading, not an iPad competitor.

  2. I agree with everything here….but I think the deciding factor for me to choose the Nook was the inabliity of the Kindle to provide access to the Public Library system to borrow books.

  3. Great post.

    “What book needs a touchscreen?
    99% of the time you’re doing page turns.”

    I think some heavy users are at around 95% doing page turns and 5% other things (looking for your book, sorting your collections, creating annotations). Touchscreen would help those users to get to 99% of page turning usage. Touchscreen would make creating highlights and browsing your collections faster. But I think those users would want also a low price, so I think it is ok for Amazon to not add touchscreen until it gets really cheap.

  4. You make some excellent points, but you missed one critical point. The Kindle isn’t for reading, it’s for reading ebooks and magazines sold by Amazon. It is the ultimate corporate tool.

    On the Kindle, any other reading material is a second-class citizen. What we read has to be in one of Amazon’s chosen formats. It has to pass through their email gateway (or a clumsy USB connection). It can’t have any web-based interactivity like Instapaper apps offer on other platforms.

    I like reading on my Kindle. I think the screen is great and am delighted by the size, battery life, and weight of the Kindle 3. But for sheer versatility, my much older iPod touch runs circles around it. I can get books from dozens of sources (including Amazon) in almost every imaginable format.

    Even more important, I can interact with what I read in more ways than the limited notes and bookmarks that the Kindle permits. Apple can be a pain at times, but I’m not tied to Apple’s apron strings like my Kindle ties me to Amazon.

    It’s the sheer versatility of products like iPads, iPhones, and the new Android gadgets that may explain why not only iPad sales, but iPad usage as an ebook reader seems slated to pass that of the Kindle. Not only is the list of what we can do on an iPad larger than that of the Kindle, the list of what we can read is also much larger.

    Apps are where the Kindle is failing. When I first read that Amazon was going to allow third-party apps on Kindles, I thought “Great! Now the Kindle will get really useful” But so far, I’ve yet to see an app that has struck me as interesting enough to download even for free.

    The Kindle needs real apps, not yet another Suduku game. How about a full-featured Instapaper app? How about a reader specifically intended for Project Gutenberg books? How about an app that uses cell-towers to get my general location and then offers me a chance to find my location on a map? How about one that will let me use that same map to find the nearest ATM or cafe? How about an app that lets me check out ebooks from a public library or at least manage the physical books I have checked out?

    I can do all that on an iPod touch that cost me only slightly more than the cheapest Kindle. I can do it on my iPhone 3G. I can do it on an iPad or a Droid phone if I owned one. Why can’t I do it on a Kindle?

    Yes, an epaper screen can’t do all the things that a LCD screen can do. But it can do what I have detailed above, and I’m not seeing in evidence that Amazon intends to let the Kindle move in that direction. They want a Kindle that remains a one-trick pony, a very brilliant and talented one-trick pony, but one that’s useful for little more than reading what Amazon sells. That’s its problem. It may be able to lick similarly limited devices like the Nook, but it may not win out over more multipurpose devices.

    1. “It has to pass through their email gateway (or a clumsy USB connection). It can’t have any web-based interactivity like Instapaper apps offer on other platforms.” that is not entirely true. You can get the Instapaper’s web generated mobi directly from the kindle’s web browser. But I agree on the interactivity.

      I also agree that Amazon should have apps soon (they said this year and we are approaching to the end). It was a key point in my kindle buying decision. I trust Amazon will release apps soon, if they don’t do it, I will reclaim the money I paid for the microphone that is not used by the device.

  5. The Kobo reader, while not nearly as well done as the Kindle and overpriced in comparison with the Kindle, also seems to be a reader focused reader. There are some nice touches in its simplicity and I like the comfort backing. But I don’t like those things enough to switch from my Kindle.

  6. The Kindle is so similar to a book, that when I get deep into a book and I am about to reach the end of the page, my brain gets ready to physically turn a page. For a split second I need to remind myself there are no pages to turn.

    Has this happen to anyone?

    @switch, did you see this survey?

    I think this was bound to happen. I am sure a percentage of people who bought the Kindle, bought it as a fad and are not serious readers. For this type of customer, surely the iPad will interest them since it is meant for more than reading.

    I do think Kindle’s overall market share will eventually shrink, however, they will dominate the serious reader market.

    1. That’s a plant. We get two surveys – one says 14% of book buyers own a Kindle and 7% own a Tablet. The second says eReader owners are up from 2.1 million to 5.9 million in 1 year.

      The Tablet Marketing machine conjures up some BS survey that claims Tablets are killing eReaders. It’s just propaganda. You can’t call a Tablet an eReader.

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

    My retort to this is you really should be reading better books. If your reading material were better, you would lose yourself in the story or message and be totally unaware of the medium.

  8. Wow. Independent thinking on the web! I looked long and hard to find an ereader that would mimic a book, but have the convenience of easy referencing for words or concepts, a night light that was integrated into the device, and easy note taking/highlighting. I really thought a heavy duty web browser and a touchscreen would be needed, but it turns out the kindle 3 answers all of the above in the most convenient way available. It truly disappears beneath the story.

    Kindles will sell because they are books, and even as tablets add new experiences for people who like to read to spend some of their time playing with, the kindle will remain their “book” experience. They will happily snuggle in a comfortable chair or in bed with it and their imagination, and happily wrap it in element proof covers for use at the beach or camp. Their other devices will simply be relegated to where toys have always been relegated in their lives.

  9. Good piece I think on the differentiation between the Kindle and other Tablet devices.

    Books basically replaced story tellers. Before the printed word, people were entertained by roving troubadors who had the knack of telling stories. Printed books gave many more people the ability to enjoy the storytelling experience, at their leisure, anytime they wanted and for less cost than bringing in a professional storyteller.

    Bear with me for second…

    Porn is visual sex that replaces real sex. People no longer need to use their imaginations: it’s a spilled-out for them either on a printed page or a glossy screen. It’s highly addictive.

    I think that TV (video) is in many ways like that: It’s visual “porn” that virtually replaces the imagination. It too is highly addictive. The devices like the iPad and other play this up by allowing people to have their visual “porn” anytime, anywhere.

    All analogies break down at some point and I’m not offering this as a perfect example, but simply saying that the Kindle as an electronic book-replacement and extension of real books does something that video cannot: it stimulates the imagination.

    Real storytelling takes time, so does reading a book. But what we’re dealing with is a generational in the way that many people today are satisfied with sound bites and quick video clips rather than taking the time to immerse themselves in the centuries-old tradition of storytelling.

  10. I happen to have a Kindle3, a Sony 900, and an ipad. For reading books, I prefer the Kindle. I got the Sony first just before the release of the new Kindle and I’m sorry I did. I should have paid closer attention to posts about the dimness of the screen in certain light. A problem fixed by the 950, except, I never found it very comfortable to hold and page turn with the Sony. I did like the expansion of ports for adding in Memory, which I did use for Music which can be a nice background while reading something that the Kindle can do, but not quite as well and with the storage limitation, not all that good.
    The ipad is not quite as enjoyable for a reading experience of straight books, however, with all of the applications out there, there are plenty of things to keep you busy.
    What I like about the Ipad is reading things like manga and comics which are in color and have been impressed with some of the flowing methods for displaying images as well as a couple of magazines. But just as book prices add up…getting apps can be addictive and expensive distraction from the pure reading experience.

  11. since you are discussing the Nook and B&N’s development of the Nook –
    did you see today on, in the Books section, an article about how it might be a big mistake that B&N spent so much money to develop the Nook; that it is burning up cash; and some think that B&N should partner with a real tech company, to take over the cost of the Nook.
    It almost sounds like the Nook expense will ruin B&N.

  12. “The Kindle duplicates the reading experience you would have with a book …”

    – NO it doesn’t. It cannot even display a drop cap or wrap text around an image. Books can. Kindle can’t. It is a deeply flawed product – a step backwards, not forwards.

    1. Clive – I disagree with you on this point.

      I think a Kindle does duplicate a book reading experience…in that…when you are deeply reading, the book ‘disappears’ when you are in the zone of reading.

      When I read on my Kindle, it does seem to ‘disappear’ and I forget the device, and I am in the zone of reading, which is how a book reading experience is for me, too.

      That’s what reading is all about…the message of what is being read and not any distraction from the device/medium being used.
      I love my Kindle!

    2. I reiterate. Clive should choose better books.

      you really should be reading better books. If your reading material were better, you would lose yourself in the story or message and be totally unaware of the medium.

  13. Interesting points brought up here in the post and comments. I do notice in the comments what I attribute to some tunnel-vision thinking about books and ebook readers. It seems some posters are only looking at ebooks as replacing one type of book that they read, ignoring that p-books are varied in intent. I think current e-ink readers (Kindle, Sony, Nook) are only really able to replace books that are primarily text, and fall down on other types of books (such as any books that depend on images, tables, heavy design (I think it will be years until an electronic version of the book Farrington Guitars is suitable for a slate ebook reading experience, though it would be wonderful on a different type of device much sooner.)

    I started out in ebook readers with 2 Sony 505s (I broke the first), then bought a Daily Edition, then a Kindle 3. I initially resisted the Kindle on the typical nerd philosophical grounds, but finally realized that *for me* those reasons didn’t hold up. I use the Kindle to read freely available classics etc. I get my books from Project Gutenberg etc, so vendor lock in isn’t an issue.

    All that said, I purchased a Nook Color this week because I think it is a wonderful device, though quite different than the readers I’ve previously owned. I bought it for its incredible display, credible web browser, and ability to play movies. I’m not certain I’ll use it as a reader (I don’t need color for children’s books, monochrome is just fine for me). I’m betting on some few useful apps once the app store is enabled. I’d like a good RSS reader and chat client… these seem reasonable expectations).

    For the majority of my reading, I’ll be sticking with the Kindle, though my wish-list includes getting rid of the physical keypad.


  14. I love Kindle from both sides. I read books and I am currently uploading my own book. More thrilling than having it publilshed (which it is!) I’m doing-it-myself which I find absolutely amazoning.In about a hundred years my book will pay for the books I download 🙂
    I have no problem with the time taken to download a book from amazon; it’s a breeze. I watch it as it works; quite wonderful. I love the size, the portability, the weight, oh just everything. I don’t want all the apps; this is a reading device and that’s just what I want it to be.

    1. Quote: “I don’t want all the apps; this is a reading device and that’s just what I want it to be.”

      I agree. That’s why I’ve loaded no apps on my K3.

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