For the last month or so, my obsessive book-reading habit has taken on the glint of a platform shift. On the recommendation of other heavy-duty readers, I cut way back on print and paper in favor of a sleek new Kindle.
In truth, I was a reluctant convert for a simple reason: I love books. But the addiction was reaching the limits of our household budget and beyond; and the pile of books (most read once, then stacked) was clearly getting out of hand. Nonetheless, I was a hold-out - I use digital technology quite a bit, spend unseemly amounts of waking time in the wired state of connection, and always look forward each day to the darkened hours of print and paper and unplugged peace. Yeah, I'm an early adopter, but I'd opted out of the early Kindle craze.
So here's the quick review and a few thoughts on the business model.
The Kindle is for readers - This is not just a nice little device, and it's not (in my view) a multi-tasking platform for connected activities of all sorts. It shouldn't compete with smart phones and app stores; indeed, I view Amazon's plan to open the Kindle to developers with skepticism. The Kindle's simplicity is its strong suit - the best moments come when I forget I'm holding an electronic gadget at all, and am fully immersed in the 'book' I'm reading. This happens all the time.
So here's what I don't need the Kindle for: Internet surfing, email, texting, games, or social media. It's a book platform. It doesn't have an illuminated screen, and therefore, it relieves eye strain rather than adds to it. The grayish electronic ink system is beautiful in its "non-laptop" functionality.
Amazon should improve the Kindle store - Strangely, given how much it's invested in the Kindle universe, the online store linked the machine isn't particularly strong. In a month of usage and some pretty heavy browsing and purchasing, the store still hasn't changed its personal recommendations for books I should buy. And the categories aren't all that easy to get around; searching isn't intuitive. The store that appears on the Kindle screen is poorly laid out and non-intuitive.
Indeed, I've taken to using my laptop to research purchases. Amazon has done the integration between my longtime account and my new Kindle account quite well - so I shop on the regular website and specify delivery to my Kindle. Speaking of delivery: it's quite brilliant. Within a minute or two of buying a book, the file pops up on the Kindle's home screen. Even better - you can quickly download a sample of any book you're considering, to see whether it passes the "first chapter test" before buying. I find that I now read three or four first chapters for every book I buy.
Forget the Apple tablet as a Kindle-killer - Unless your eyes are as strong as Superman's, you're not going to read books on a regular basis on a backlit screen. The real competition in the e-book device niche comes from other e-ink devices like he Barnes and Noble Nook and Sony's readers. To my (tired) eye, this will always remain a real readers' niche - not a path to another big wired platform.
Publishers don't get it - I'm not sure why book publishers don't see the kindle as more of an opportunity, instead of a threat. Don't they understand that Kindle owners are the ones who buy the most books - the obsessive readers who don't have enough space on their shelves for more printed tomes? The current practice is to hold big new books back from the Kindle platform for a few weeks to give bookstores a head start on best-selling sales. This is patently insane. They should be releasing books on the Kindle first, for the hard-core readers. Now that I've got the Kindle, I'm perfectly happy to wait for a book like Game Change to come out for the device. I'm not racing to get it in print. And if, by mid-February when the trashy political tell-all is finally due to be released for the Kindle, I just happen to forget to buy it - well, whose loss is that?
To my publishing friends, I have a message: I'm buying and reading more books now. You need to understand that, and start to aggressively market to the e-reader audience with loyalty programs and exclusives - rather than punishing Kindle readers. [As the Times pointed out today, some publishers do get it].
In any case, I'm a convert - I dig this little white machine for its ease of use and simplicity and for the amazingly quick access to a library of great books, many of which are free of charge (public domain classics are a huge Kindle segment).
Can the Kindle go social? I'll leave this with a question: wouldn't it be great if Kindle used its built-in connectivity to link readers to a system of mini-reviews and ratings via some simle social media tools - perhaps connecting reading lists to blogs, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the Amazon Kindle store? My guess is that's coming, and that social media-driven best-seller lists will begin to drive sales. Something else for 'print' publishers to pay attention to.