A lot of people, in both publishing and tech, think the Kindle is a novelty device, and will be sunk by its high price and most people’s unwillingness to read books onscreen. I agree that these are problems, and perhaps in ten years, we’ll think of the thing as another Newton. But I’d bet that even if it tanks, a Kindle-like device will be the thing that, while not replacing books, takes over a good deal of the “delivery device for textual content” market.
How will this device be different from the current Kindle? For starters, it’ll be a computer. Already you can buy a reasonable laptop for about the same price as a Kindle. Why can’t Amazon add computer functionality to the Kindle, or a laptop maker add a few Kindle-type controls to a budget machine, and fit it with an “easy-on-the-eyes” screen? I’m no hardware geek, but the technical hurdles don’t strike me as high. (Except, I guess, for the battery-life problem. Though this could be solved by enabling users to switch to a “book-reading-only” mode, which would use only as much battery power as the current Kindle.)
Perhaps Amazon is already working on this. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeff Bezos and Ian Freed—my former boss!—don’t care if Kindle 1.0 sells, so long as it impresses the public, and scares off potential competitors, and thus buys them some extra time to finish designing and testing a Kindle-computer.
And who would buy such a thing? Students! Every day, they read a lot and use computers, and they aren’t so attached to books. A Kindle-for-students is easy to imagine. Amazon would start by signing exclusive ebook distribution agreements with textbook publishers, and partnering with Microsoft to create a Kindle-only educational software suite. The device itself could be tricked out with hardware and software features that would appeal to the student market. Good speakers, for one, along with a low-cost subscription to Rhapsody, and a pre-installed Adobe Media Player for downloading and watching TV shows. Amazon could also give buyers special deals on such content as, say, electronic versions of manga and teen magazines.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, Amazon could make the Kindle much more appealing by changing the way content is delivered and priced. Currently, you buy Kindle “books” unit-by-unit, the same way you buy physical books. But, as Joe Wikert suggests, a lot of people would prefer a Rhapsody-type subscription plan. And different market segments could be targeted with different plans. A “bibliophile” plan would give a volume discount to those who buy a ton of books. A “browser’s plan” would allow users to download, say, the first fifty pages of an unlimited number of books, so they could check each out before deciding whether to download the whole thing, at either regular cost or a discount, depending how many they buy per month. Low-cost Netflix-style plans would let users keep a limited number of books “checked out” at a time. Genre plans would target fans of, say, sci-fi, mysteries, and romance novels, by offering discounts on titles of a particular type, in exchange for users agreeing to buy a certain number of them every year—a modified version of the old Columbia Record Club arrangement.
Anyway, these are just a few ideas off the top of my head. Some of them might work, some might not. At some point, Amazon or another company will use them or others to take the Kindle idea to the next level—the keys being, to justify the device’s high price by offering more features, and to make the content cheaper, to give people incentive to move away from books. Probably the latter is most important, as hardware isn’t where the real money is to be made here. Indeed, perhaps Amazon should let others develop the hardware, and focus on signing as many exclusivity deals as possible with publishers, since selling content, in bulk, is the real goldmine.