Amazon Unveils Wireless Kindle E-Book ReaderWith the $399 Kindle, Amazon's first hardware offering, users can download thousands of titles, plus periodicals and Web fare from Whispernet.
NEW YORK -- Amazon today announced its long-anticipated wireless Kindle e-book reader.
The Kindle, Amazon's first foray into making its own hardware, weighs 10.3 ounces, can contain up to 200 books, has a keyboard, and uses electronic ink display technology. It is on sale today at Amazon.com.
Kindle isn't the first e-book reader. Sony launched its $350 Sony Reader earlier this year (currently, this model is being sold for $280 at SonyStyle.com). Motricity sells e-book reader software for use with Windows Mobile and Palm devices.
At a splashy event here, Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and CEO, unveiled the device by starting with a history of printing, from the early days of stones and papyrus onwards. Gutenberg might recognize printed books in their current form today, but he'd be unlikely to recognize Amazon's vision of the future of reading as embodied by the Kindle e-book reader. The device is on sale now at amazon.com.
Three years in the making, the Kindle derives its name from the concept of the device "kindling" people's interest in reading.
In coming up with the device, says Bezos, "We knew we would never out-book the book. We knew we would have to take some of the capabilities of modern technology and do some things that the book can't do."
How It Works
Kindle operates without ever connecting to a PC. Instead, the device can download books--any of 90,000 at launch--directly via the built-in EvDO radio connection to Amazon's new Whispernet service.
Books take less than a minute to download, and their price varies, but new releases and New York Times bestsellers cost $9.99.
The service runs on the Sprint EvDO network; it carries no service charges or contracts--that's all covered in the background by Amazon.
In addition to books, Kindle can automatically download newspapers and blogs, in a return of "push" technology. The device also has a dictionary and Wikipedia access.
The Kindle service also includes newspapers, magazines, and blogs. Publications that you subscribe to are delivered directly to the device. Choices include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Houston Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, Time, Fortune, The Atlantic Monthly, Le Monde, and Slate.
More than 300 of the most popular blogs with their full content also are available. You subscribe to the blogs you want, and they're updated throughout the day.
Amazon also integrates a dictionary for easy reference. And for more encyclopedic knowledge, the built-in browser lets you access Wikipedia.
How It's Made
Amazon sources the Kindle's four-color grayscale electronic-ink display from E Ink. The display lacks a backlight, which helps conserve battery life (an optional clip-on front light is sold as an accessory); Bezos says the display is readable in bright sunlight (a claim that I couldn't test today in rainy New York City).
The display measures 6 inches across the diagonal. According to Charlie Tritschler, Amazon's director of Kindle development, 6 inches "is the sweet spot for the portability of the device." The screen is designed to be easy on the eyes, Tritschler continues; "it's one of the reasons we chose a reflective [screen] technology."
The Kindle has 256MB of memory total, of which 180MB is user-accessible.
You can also store more books on an SD Card. The device's SD Card reader can hold MP3s, audio books, and additional Kindle books. Books typically require 500KB to 700KB of space.
Amazon sources the device from an OEM in China.
First Hands-On With Kindle
In this early peek at the reader, it appears that Amazon has done its homework in coming up with features that promote usability as well as a design that people will enjoy handling.
The last page read automatically becomes a bookmark--the place you access when you return to that title, for example. And a bar for moving to the next page runs the length of the right-hand side of the display. Amazon researched how people read, and noticed that people change posture and position.
You use the device's select wheel--located at the bottom of the display--to highlight a passage or make an annotation. You can then e-mail a highlight to a friend, or access your notes--they're stored as text files--via the device's USB connection.
Amazon claims the Kindle has a long battery life: The device can last "a couple of days" with the wireless connection on all the time, or up to a week without the wireless, says Tritschler.
Every Kindle also comes with a customizable e-mail address. You can e-mail Microsoft Word documents, GIFs, and JPEGS to the Kindle, for example.
Shopping With Kindle
Shopping for books via the Kindle's store is simple--it looks similar to what you'd see if you were shopping at Amazon online.
The Kindle store lets you browse or search for content; when you find something you like, you select the book to see further details--including a description, the sales rank in the Kindle store, customer reviews, print length, other titles that customers bought, and the list price for the paper version of the book.
Click on buy, and the book downloads to your device automatically. You can continue shopping or reading while the download is in progress. And if you purchased by accident, you can immediately cancel your order.
If you're browsing Amazon on your PC, you can buy something there and send it directly to your Kindle (unfortunately, there are no special deals as yet for buying a physical book and a Kindle digital book together). Or, you can have the title sent to your PC and from there transfer it to your Kindle via a direct USB connection.
While you can have the file reside in both places, you can't read the book on the PC. Amazon doesn't limit the number of copies, but the title is tied to your Kindle device (and you can't send a book to someone else to read--they have to buy their own copy).
Amazon archives your purchases on its servers. If you lose a book, or need to delete books off of the Kindle to make room for new titles, your purchase is still stored on the server side--and you can redownload the book at will.
Amazon's Kindle Philosophy
In introducing the Kindle, Bezos mused "Why are books the last bastion of analog?" Answering his question, he continued: "Books have stubbornly resisted digitization. The book is so highly evolved and so well suited to its task that it's hard to displace. The key feature of a book is that it disappears as you read it."
"What remains is the author's ideas and words...so you can enjoy your reading," Bezos said. Therefore, "if you're going to build a purpose-built reading device, it has to get out of your way so you can enter the author's world."
E-Books: Do They Finally Make Sense?
At $399, the up-front investment for the Kindle is high, though the device carries a one-year warranty. But this piece of hardware is the only way you can view your downloaded books, and if you lose it or break it, you'll have to buy another one.
More to the point: Are consumers ready to trade in the paper pages of their beloved books for digital? "It's always a difficult proposition to sell consumers a device that serves primarily to sell them other products," cautions Ross Rubin, an analyst with The NPD Group.
"To an extent," he explains, "that's what the Kindle and the Sony Reader both are--they are a gateway for the consumer to buy more content through those companies."
"[This] is opposed to the iPod, where consumers had a storehouse of their own music that they could move to the device. Amazon is seeking to raise the level of convenience in purchasing books with wireless access, and not saddling consumers with a subscription."
According to Rubin, e-books haven't taken off before now, in large part because of content--or the lack thereof. "Up until now, the bottleneck has been the availability of content," he says. "With over 90,000 titles, Amazon has seemed to address that, while providing the hook of periodical and blog content to make the device an everyday information access tool."
"Amazon is fighting against declining interest in book reading by making reading books more convenient," Rubin says. "E-books aren't a mass-market phenomenon as music [is]. The Sony Reader has begun to prove there's a market for such a device, though; and Amazon has helped remove some of the barriers to acquisition."