Amazon Races Itself to Market

The Kindle 2 is quickly outdated by the Kindle DX, reprising the rapid obsolescence of the Kindle 1

Amazon, which announced a third-generation Kindle just weeks after releasing the Kindle 2, has been in a design race against itself. It was working on Kindle 2 even before the first model came off the manufacturing line in November 2007, Amazon told IEEE Spectrum. And judging from the 10 weeks that elapsed between the Kindle 2 launch in late February and the Kindle 3 announcement in early May, this latest version also had to have been in the works.

Kindle 2 is a sleeker Kindle 1 with better software. Kindle 3, now named Kindle DX, will have a 24-centimeter (9.7-inch) screen, more than twice as big as on the earlier models and, at a resolution of 1200-by-824 pixels, will show twice the content. In form, it is a larger twin of Kindle 2, except the DX has a nifty rotating display.

Kindle 2 was a response to the Kindle 1’s earliest critics—a product-test audience that got to play with that first device months before Amazon energized the e-reader market by developing its own device. Those critics didn’t like the K1’s oddly angular frame, seemingly intended to resemble a paperback book folded backward. Nor did they like its long buttons on both sides. Both the shape and the buttons were gone before Kindle 1 was ever introduced, says Charlie Tritschler, director of Kindle product management. In all, seven designs for Kindle 2 were considered seriously, he says. Several made it to prototype, but the Kindle 1 shape was not to be found among them.

To a large degree Amazon has let itself be informed by its critics, not by the legions of fans who kept the first Kindle perpetually on back order right up to the moment it was made obsolete this February. Even as those early adopters were bragging that their new reading device was the anti-iPod—retrograde, strange looking, and ergonomic only after getting used to it—Amazon was giving the next generation an Apple-like makeover [see ”eBook Shoot-out,” IEEE Spectrum Online, April 2009].

Amazon ignored the nearly unanimous wish lists filling Kindle chat rooms, e-book sites like Mobileread.com, and even its own customer comment area. The No. 1 request was for folders or some other kind of filing system to organize the thousands of books a Kindle can store simultaneously.


Also missing from Kindle 2, and apparently from Kindle DX, is the ability to lock away content from the eyes of friends and family members. Tritschler says that the Kindle has been aimed at a nontechnical audience, and Amazon wants it to remain a device that works right out of the box. Unless folders and locks can be made dead simple, they are unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Besides the larger screen, what Amazon has added in the third generation is the third-most requested feature: native PDF support. Until now, users could e-mail documents to Amazon and have them converted for a 10-cent fee, but the results were often unreadable. Kindle DX’s native PDF support and its much larger screen are clearly intended for manuals, business documents, and textbooks. That means, however, that the Kindle needs a filing and locking system more than ever.

As a paradoxically retro early adopter who still prefers her original Kindle, I have to admit that the Kindle DX design reveals the underlying logic of the changes from K1 to K2, given the marketing shift from paperbacks to textbooks—and to newspapers, which can single-handedly justify buying an e-book reader. If you trade in your home-delivered New York Times ($551 annually) in favor of the Kindle version ($168), the pricey $359 K2 pays for itself in 11 months and the even pricier DX in 15. Sure enough, The New York Times , The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post have each announced trials in which subscribers are given Kindles.


Kindles Are Cheap, Compared to Newspapers

 

Annual subscription

Pays for itself (months)

Newspaper

Home delivery

Kindle delivery

Kindle DX ($489)

Kindle 2 ($359)

The New York Times

US $551

$168

15.3

11.2

The Boston Globe

US $637

$120

11.3

8.3

The Washington Post

US $244

$120

47.1

34.6

Rates are for local-area home delivery and are current as of 1 June 2009.


 

The flurry of contradictory Kindle models has been confusing, but for Amazon, designing two or three models ahead has enormous benefits. With a summer release, the DX beat to market Plastic Logic, which announced an e-newspaper reader last fall. At the time, Plastic Logic showed off a promising, practically unbreakable but glitchy device that won’t be available, the company says, until early in 2010. [Spectrum Online contributor Mark Anderson toured Plastic Logic’s brand-new factory in Dresden, Germany, this past February; see ”Inside the Plastic Electronics Revolution.”]

Most newspapers aren’t as posh as The New York Times , and most books are a lot cheaper than textbooks, so for most potential buyers,the new Kindle isn’t so easy to justify. On top of its $489 list price, a protective cover—free with the original model and $30 with the K2—goes for $50. An extended warranty—not a bad idea for a device that costs as much as a computer and frequently fails the ”drop test”—is another $109. A subsidy by newspaper publishers would go a long way to making all this affordable.

 

About the Author

Sherry Sontag is coauthor of the best seller Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage (Harper Perennial, 1998) and a regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum.

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