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.

The levels of eReader expertise

There seem to be 3 rules when it comes to eReaders -

  1. Everyone is an eReader expert. 
  2. Everyone knows exactly what’s going to happen in the world of eReaders.  
  3. The more you get to actually understand eReaders the less sure you are of the above two.

You could argue this holds true with any given field and you might be right. This post will only talk about eReaders.

The ‘Never Touched an eReader’ level of Absolute Expertise

This is the highest point you can ever attain which is why some people wisely never leave it.

  1. People at this level are absolutely confident that eReaders are useless and are going to die out.  
  2. People at this level are absolutely right. 
  3. When you are at this level you are blessed with clairvoyance and the ability to predict the exact date that eReaders will die out (give or take a day). 
  4. When you are at this level you also have the wisdom to know exactly what eReader companies should do next.
  5. People at this level are 10 times more important than anyone else. In fact people at this level are sometimes more important than all other people combined and other people would be well served to follow instructions.  

People who read books are excluded from this group – since they are actually familiar with the purpose of eReaders i.e. reading, they are incapable of attaining true mastery.

The ‘Indifference’ level of Expertise 

This is a very Zen level of expertise and in many ways the one apart from and above all others.

  1. People at this level don’t care – they neither make predictions, nor do they love or hate or have any emotion towards eReaders.  
  2. They know everything about eReaders and nothing about eReaders. 
  3. eReaders are but a drop in the ocean of possibilities and in some ways eReaders don’t even exist for them. The person next to them might be reading on a Kindle and to them it’ll appear as a hardcover. 

It’s hard to believe such people exist given the huge amount of eReaders opinions – However, they do. They only keep their opinions to themselves because all of us wouldn’t be able to grasp or conceptualize their effortless brilliance.

The true experts at this level don’t even have an opinion regarding eReaders. They saw the eReader and it was like a ripple in a pond that no one notices – not even the pond.

The ‘eReaders could never replace books’ level of Near-Perfect Expertise

Although their knowledge of reading forbids them from attaining the highest level of expertise the people at the Near-Perfect level of expertise are a close second (the Zen group defy categorization into levels).

  1. People at this level are absolutely correct about books being infinitely better than eReaders. 
  2. People at this level realize what the non-experts do not – That eReaders threaten to kill books. They also realize that eReaders could never become popular so they are not overly concerned.  
  3. Depending on their generosity these people can accurately predict whether eReaders and eBooks will stabilize at 10% of market share or die out.  
  4. They are aware that the touch, smell, feel, and aesthetics of physical books are incomparable and are blessed with the distinguished taste that their less fortunate reader brethren are not.  
  5. Some of them have sullied their credibility by actually touching an eReader – a few have even tried it out at length. The latter destroys their expertise and relegates them to the next lower level.

Basically, this group is threatened because members tend to actually use an eReader and spoil their near-perfect expertise. It’s getting tougher and tougher to maintain this high level of expertise as eReaders spread through the general non-expert populace.

The ‘Innocence Lost’ level of expertise

Many eReader experts have made the mistake of actually using an eReader – thereby becoming aware of some of the features. This, understandably, kills their eReader expertise.

  1. They can no longer predict the future of eReaders accurately. 
  2. They become brainwashed into thinking that eReaders might have certain advantages over multiple purpose devices. In certain cases they are even under the delusion that eReaders are better for reading than multi-purpose devices.
  3. The second common delusion is that eReaders are more convenient than physical books and that the words in a book are more important than the binding and paper.
  4. People at this level usually find themselves explaining to eReader owners why they don’t own an eReader instead of mocking them.
  5. People at this level are in the lowest satisfaction bracket – they are neither absolute experts like people who’ve never seen an eReader, nor are they ignorant in their bliss like eReader owners.

This level is causing huge problems for the two upper levels (predictably the Zen group don’t care). The experts don’t know whether to club people at this level with the other, lower delusional people or attempt to convert them back to experts.  

There are rumors that some people at this level are even considering eReaders as a possible purchase without realizing the darkness and despair they will be thrust into. 

The ‘Corrupted by eReaders’ level of inexpertise

These are the people who have had huge chunks of their expertise eroded due to actually buying and occasionally using an eReader.

  1. People at this level actually use eReaders and some even like them.  
  2. As you might imagine the emotional attachment to eReaders (not to mention the experience of using eReaders) makes them incapable of any expertise.  
  3. These people begin to think that eReaders might not die out. 
  4. A lot of the people at this level of inexpertise begin to think they know more about eReaders than true experts who’ve never touched one – You’ll recognize this as one of the key symptoms of a strong delusion.
  5. A rare few even begin to subscribe to strange beliefs – that a device meant for reading should be optimized for reading, that the words make up the core of the book and not the cover and ink and binding.

The worst of these even recommend eReaders to other people – thereby spreading their ignorance and delusion. Experts are advised to avoid these people and their arguments – even when their ignorance is couched in brilliant terms. 

The ‘Totally Corrupted by eReaders’ level of inexpertise

These are the totally hopeless – so lost in their delusion and ignorance that they start loving their eReaders and using them regularly.

  1. People at this level have, at some level, given up hope of ever gaining true knowledge about eReaders – the type that can only be acquired by avoiding eReaders completely.
  2. Most people at this level read regularly and prefer reading on their eReader over physical books – Surely, the strongest sign of the severity of their delusion and ignorance.
  3. People at this level are shameless in their championing of eReaders. They are akin to out of control Vampires who go about converting everyone they can.
  4. A key characteristic at this level is beginning to think eReaders have a strong future. It arises hand in hand with a desire to own newer versions of eReaders which in its worst case manifests as ownership of multiple eReaders.  
  5. Perhaps the most galling thing about the people at this level is their tendency to question the brilliance and wisdom of the true experts. It’s unholy for people who spend all their time with eReaders to think they could know more about eReaders than people who’ve never touched one.

These people, unfortunately, are beyond help. Many true experts (and associations linked with true experts) have tried various things to help them including -

  • Cutting down their addiction to eReaders via delayed ebook releases and the Agency Model. 
  • Making other devices very shiny and pretty.
  • Spreading knowledge and expertise through the media and educating these people.

All these measures have failed. Unfortunately, it seems that the people at this lowest level are completely ignorant and beyond help.  

The Source of Evil and Ignorance

A handful of true experts have claimed that they have found the real source of all this ignorance and folly. While it’s easy to point to eReaders and being exposed to them as the cause of all the ignorance there seems to be something much deeper and far more malevolent.

Stay tuned for our next post revealing what’s really behind the loss of expertise linked with the use of eReaders.

eReaders still missing the last 10%

Laptop Mag has an excellent review of the Entourage Edge eReader and they add this bit about it missing some features -

A few of the Edge’s hardware features weren’t functional upon initial release, including Bluetooth connectivity and the Webcam.

Future software upgrades will include an app store, Flash Player Lite, and Android 2.0 …

Entourage says that a future model will be sold with 3G built-in.

This ‘missing features to be added via future software upgrades’ thread should sound familiar to owners of the Nook (bug fixes, store offers), the Sony Reader (wireless downloads), and the Kindle (PDF support).

Why do eReaders always have missing features?

 There are lots of reasons, good and bad, for all the missing features -

  1. The Kindle is missing some features because Amazon want a closed ecosystem. That’s why PDF support was so late in arriving and why ePub is not supported.
  2. The Sony Reader didn’t have wireless downloads for 2 years because Sony couldn’t figure out that users would prefer getting books straight to their eReaders.  
  3. The Nook needed multiple upgrades with fixes because it was rushed to market.

This same pattern repeats with the other eReaders available in the market (though they sometimes seem to be missing the last 90% ;) ).

The Last 10% is really difficult to get done

In software development there’s a saying that the last 10% takes up 90% of the time. It’s obviously a bit of an exaggeration – However, it does convey the amount of effort and time taken to polish things up and fix all the bugs and release a great product.

It’s the same with eReaders – getting the last 10% done and done right takes a lot of effort and so far no one’s getting it right. You can take any reading device and there are holes in its value proposition -

  1. The iPad doesn’t have eInk or great battery life. 
  2. The Kindle isn’t pretty and isn’t open. 
  3. The Nook doesn’t have intuitive UI and is still getting its layers of polish.
  4. The Sony sacrifices readability for touch.
  5. The Que is too expensive.
  6. The Entourage Edge (according to Laptop Mag’s review) lacks in battery life, lightness, and misses features.
  7. Lots of the cheaper eReaders lack 3G. A few even lack WiFi.
  8. The iPhone has a tiny screen and no eInk.

To make things worse eReader technology itself is missing a lot.

The State of eInk makes the last 10% even tougher to get done

Not only is getting the last 10% done difficult it’s almost impossible given the state of eInk. eReaders have to deal with slow page refreshes, lack of color, lack of support for video, and other limitations. It means that a lot of effort goes into working around these drawbacks and that there are hard limits on what eReaders can accomplish.

We might need quite a few improvements in ePaper and eReader technology before companies can hammer out the last 10%. The technology improvements might actually be necessary so it’s good to know that by the end of the year we ought to have color ePaper and other advances.

eReaders that will get everything right seem a fairy tale given the current status quo. However, we are just in the second generation of reading devices.

The Third Generation of eReaders will get the last 10%

In a way every eReader and every eReader feature is just part of a test – to figure out what the ideal eReader is and how to create it.

Take all the feedback from owners of various devices, the data on user behavior, and sales data from various eReaders and eBook stores - It’s all data that can be leveraged to improve eReaders. The third generation of eReaders will not only have this data they will benefit from economies of scale and from the new generation of ePaper technology.

Two plus years of testing and experimenting and it sets the stage for a third generation eReader that blows everyone away.

Which eReader will be the magic one?

Reading the Entourage Edge review is interesting because you realize that it came pretty close to being the surprise winner of the ‘best $500 eReader’ crown.

There’s nothing stopping a completely new eReader from taking the ‘best $250 eReader’ crown?

While the Kindle 3 is the favorite you could have a completely new eReader or a secret Google eReader or the Nook 2 or the next Sony Reader win out. It’s still wide open and that’s perhaps the biggest sign that the current generation of eReaders have a lot of improving to do.

Contrasting Philosophies and a way to bypass the last 10%

It’s worth noting that Amazon with their kaizen philosophy probably don’t think of the last 10% as much as some other companies.

  1. The last 10% is more of a Steve Jobs thing to do – to make sure a product is very, very polished and almost perfect at launch. It might still take 3 generations to perfect (like the iPod) – However, the level of polish is very impressive and sometimes the first or second generation gets it right.
  2. Amazon follows a Kaizen philosophy which means you get something out that’s merely good (as opposed to excellent) and then keep improving it until it first matches and then exceeds the super polished competitor. That’s how Japanese car companies did it and that’s how Amazon plan on doing it.

This contrast in philosophies is very important – It probably means that the Kindle may lose its position for a bit but it will keep improving and might eventually put a lot of distance between itself and other eReaders. Apple don’t really care about reading but if they did create a dedicated eReader it would be fascinating to see Apple’s obsession with perfection take on Amazon’s obsession with never-ending improvement.

The last 10% – that’s the only thing standing between eReaders and mass adoption.

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