Kindle 3, quality, and time

Two things about the Kindle 3 have been trapezing through my head and this post is the only way to tie them together -

  1. Amazon spent 3 years before the release of the Kindle working on it and it’s been 2.75 years since it was released. This is courtesy the Charlie Rose show with Amazon’s CEO.  That’s nearly 6 years and Kindle 3 is the outcome of all that effort.
  2. Someone at Pixar mentioned in an article that ‘Pixar movies don’t get finished they just get released’.

Is there a relationship between time and thought put into a product and its quality? Is the Kindle 3 an example of that?

Let’s start with the first.

Are Quality of a Product and Time taken to produce it interwoven?

Outliers and Talent is Overrated and other books talk a lot about how it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill and become an expert. They also say that this usually takes a period of 10 years. What about applying that expert skill set (perhaps along with dozens or even hundreds of other people’s expert skill sets) to produce a masterpiece?

How long does it take to produce a masterpiece? Is it of the order of 10,000 hours or 10 years (just like mastering a skill)?

If we look around us we get a very interesting range of timelines -

  1. You could argue that a master shoemaker like Jimmy Choo is able to produce a masterpiece in a few days. However, which of those masterpieces is going to last for centuries and how long did that particular idea germinate in his mind?  
  2. What about authors – How long does it take an author to create a masterpiece? Is thinking about the book included or do we just include the writing?
  3. Look at the Kindle 3 and you get the feeling the 10 year time-line seems about right – It does seem Kindle 3 is 60% of the way to perfection. 
  4. If we believe Steve Jobs’ claim that he conceived of the iPad and iPhone in 2000 (he says he thought of the iPad before the iPhone) we’re looking at iPhone 4 as the 4th release and the culmination of 10 years of thought and work. The iPad, even in its first release, probably represents quite a few years of work – You could also argue that all the work on the iPhone transferred over.  
  5. With the Internet there is a sense of it taking just a few years to create a great product. Is that true? If so, where are the great products? You could argue Google and Craigslist and Wikipedia are masterpieces – Well, they weren’t exactly quick hits. They’re amongst the few Internet productions that are near masterpiece quality in impact.
  6. How long does it take to make a great movie? Do we include the script? Do we include time taken to write the book if it’s based on a book?
  7. What about sports? If we watch a performance and consider it one of the greatest ever (let’s say Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile mark) do we count just those 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds or do we also count all the training put into it.  

The one thing we notice is that, except for the shoe-making example, masterpieces seem to be taking multiple years to produce – usually 5 to 10. You could argue that even with shoemaking a truly innovative design or breakthrough probably takes multiple years to conceive and develop.

Are the Kindle and the Nook on their way to being masterpieces?

There are things about the Nook and Sony Reader that drive users mad – for the Nook it’s the awkward LCD touchscreen and for the Sony it’s the lack of thought into how the touchscreen is used. Perhaps these are just manifestations of less effort and time being put in.

It’s quite likely that with time and effort Nook and Sony Reader will rival the level of polish of some of the products that you would consider masterpieces (and for the record don’t think Kindle 3 is there yet).

Take the Nook – It’s probably 1.5 years to 2 years worth of effort. There will obviously be far more bugs and usability issues than with the Kindle 3 which represents 6 years of effort. However, it’s done a pretty good job of rivaling the Kindle. If B&N keeps pouring effort and time into it the Nook may very well be one of the two or three eReaders that survive the eReader wars.

That brings us to the Kindle and, in particular, to the Kindle 3.

How close is Kindle 3 to being a masterpiece?

There are a few things that make you feel it’s really close -

  1. The improved eInk screen.
  2. The size and battery life.
  3. The price of the Kindle WiFi.
  4. The infrastructure. You could argue that WhisperNet is a year or two away from being something of undiluted beauty.
  5. The Kindle Store. The Store actually seems a little behind – perhaps halfway to where it needs to be. However, every other store is still learning to walk so the Kindle Store seems vastly better in comparison.
  6. The family sharing feature – You have to admit it’s a super useful feature. 
  7. The Text to speech feature and the Voice Guide.

There are definitely a lot of signs that Kindle 3 has a shot at achieving perfection and that it might do so in the next 2 to 5 years.

There are also some clear signs that it’s not there yet -

  1. There’s still no writing aspect. To make things worse Kindle 3 doesn’t have a row of number keys. If we’re going to replace paper with Kindle we need to be able to write on the Kindle.
  2. It’s dependent on eInk (the company). Which means no color and no touch. Perhaps Qualcomm Mirasol will solve this problem.   
  3. There’s too much of a tendency to do bit releases. Whether its PDF support or accessibility you get the feeling Amazon prefers to release experimental features and then build on them. Not sure if this gets in the way of quality or whether it helps by providing quicker feedback.  

There are lots of other small signs that we aren’t there yet. You could argue that the price could be a little lower and while it’s unfair given how recently we were at $299 it’s valid from a long-term perspective.

What could stop Kindle from becoming a masterpiece? Could another eReader beat it and get there first?

In a way Kindle 3 illustrates both that the Kindle is likely to get to perfection first and that it isn’t yet a done deal.

Kindle might not be the first eReader to reach this imaginary ‘masterpiece’ designation because it’s dependent on eInk and copying takes far less time than conceiving and creating a completely new product. Look at the first Nook – It took almost every single Kindle pain point and incorporated it in. That along with the dual screen design allowed Nook to be a worthy challenger. At any given time a Kindle, for example the current Kindle 3, has only a 6-9 month window before all the best ideas are copied and replicated and a solid competitor shows up.

If the competitor is also using its own strengths i.e. library books, ePub, etc. then it becomes easier for it to make up for the additional time and effort put into the Kindle. Fundamentally, the need to keep Kindle ebook revenue intact slows down the Kindle’s progress towards perfection. At some point of time the Kindle will have to let go of the ebook revenue stream if it really wants to create the absolutely perfect eReader (let go = let readers decide).

The two ways Kindle could miss

At the moment there isn’t anything that could stop the Kindle from becoming a masterpiece except the death of dedicated eReaders. Since that’s looking less and less likely we can look forward to seeing some truly exceptional eReaders in the future.

There’s another risk – It is possible that the Kindle gets 90% of the way there and then another eReader copies most of the good, adds in the few missing features (that Amazon won’t add since it wants to preserve its ebook revenue stream), and hits perfection before the Kindle does.

It’ll be interesting to see what Amazon decides if it’s faced with that decision – Would it give up the ebook revenue stream to ensure its the first perfect eReader? Would it hang on to ebook revenue and find another way to reach perfection? Would it value its two profitable revenue streams more than making the Kindle perfect?

You could look at the Kindle 3 and see it as a sign the Kindle is well on its way to being a masterpiece. However, the ending of the story hasn’t yet been written.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,809 other followers