Eight reasons why the iPad isn't a Kindle killer (and four reasons it might be, after all)
The first time I heard the term "Kindle Killer" in conjunction with Apple's forthcoming tablet thingie, it was well before said thingie was announced or had a name or anything outside of pure speculation. To wit, people were declaring that a then fiction device of unknown proportions and capabilities would surely supersede a year-old device of known capabilities. Yes, I suppose a fictional device can be better than an existing one. Flying cars would be awesome, too.
Now that the iSlate is called the iPad, and is on the cusp of existing, a new round of "Kindle Killer" rhetoric is popping up with that same loud tolling of the death knells for pathetic single-purpose readers like the Amazon Kindle and the B&N nook. I guess it's that sense of fanboyism that leads to long usenet fights between fans of Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. For as long as there have been artistic endeavors, and especially gadget-ish endeavors, there have been those users and fans who have felt some special partnership with the creator. Such a partnership as to get quite frothing when it comes to comparing products.
Now, admittedly, as a Kindle owner, a post like this puts me almost in the same category. But not quite. Because what I have been thinking about is how the "Kindle Killer" rhetoric (used as the actual title of Roy Tenant's recent blog post (not his first one about how the Kindle is surely going to be replaced) overlooks some very important Human-Device Interaction aspects. It assumes, say, a Swiss-Army knife is just as good as Bowie knife and has a pair of scissors to boot. Well, I am getting ahead of myself. Let me give you eight practical reasons why the "Kindle Killer" hasn't shown up, yet, in the iPad (and, for full fairness purposes, how it could end up being the "Kindle Killer" after all).
(1) Customization of product can greatly enhance features for a product's tasks. That Swiss-Army knife analogy, above. A Swiss-Army knife works because it has a number of relatively lesser devices all at once. It is not the best knife, nor the best anything, but it is a mediocre lots of things. This gives it a utility. In the case of a device like the Kindle or nook, being just an ebook reader gives it a number of possible advantages in addressing issues of page turning, integration with note-taking and dictionaries, display questions, and feel. Notice that the Kindle 2 screen is about the size of a mass-market page and the Kindle DX screen, is about the size of a trade paperback page. They are responding to what we know and expect out of a book. A multi-purpose device will first have to be the device, and then secondly integrate books into it. Sure, Amazon or Sony could drop the ball and not take advantage of the situation, but by the nature of the beast, their devices can do more in their focus.
(2) The presence of similar devices (Netbook, iPod Touch) have not previously killed the Kindle. Not really an argument per se, since the actually sales numbers of all things ebook and near-book are kept in some quantum morass requiring the Necronomicon to solve all the non-euclidean space issues; but by the press I have read it at least seems the Kindle and nook are doing ok despite there already being devices like the iPhone, iPod Touch, and Netbook out there. Howard Sherman wrote a blog entry a few months back—"eBook Readers are NOTHING Next to Netbooks"—that includes the quote: "From a consumer's point of view an ebook reader is a waste of money no matter how many bells and whistles are under the hood." With all that being said, it seems that there is lots of life in the Kindle and friends. The reasons include:
(3) Power supply issues. I recharge my Kindle every couple of weeks, sometimes over a month goes buy. We are talking about thousands of page turns and five or six full books. No multi-purpose reader will ever come close to matching that. I take my Kindle of days long trips without a power cord because I know I don't need it. Sure, you here funny stories of people needing to "plug in their books" but considering something like 300-500 hours (with something like 30-100 active hours) between charges I get with my Kindle, I'm sure that those stories are part fluff or partially due to the people not getting the most out of their system. Another reason the multi-purposes haven't yet killed the system, I feel is
(4) The positive qualities of reading on eInk. This is a subjective thing, and I know some people hate it, but you can read a long time on eInk compared to reading on a back-lit LED monitor. I think the contrast could be touched up just a notch, but that is something that is a generation away. The "lit monitor" syndrome, though, is one of the big reasons ebooks never took off until now. When reading my Kindle in public, I am still regularly approached by people who say "I can't read on a monitor so I wouldn't want one" followed by me showing them the display and I watch them change their minds. As said, it's not perfect, but it is easier on my eyes, at least.
(5) Better integration with an established bookstore. While there are many drawbacks to this, Amazon's integration into the Kindle (and B&N's with the nook) allow direct purchasing of books, as well as built in ratings systems and the like. Sure, the iTunes store is well established, too, but not book-centric like the others. Since the iTunes bookstore is not open, there really is not much I can say.
(6) Yet Another Format (YAF) syndrome. However, I can note that as-of-now it seems that Apple is going with a wholly new format, some sort of ePub (I think) based DRM scheme. Which only works on Apple hardware. Not only is YAF syndrome going to deter people with already sizable ebook collections, it, as a whole, will make it harder (with current ISBN rules requiring new ISBNs per format) for indie publishers to really get out there in both platforms. Who knows who they will choose, but it is to be kept in mind. I am also thinking about the way that iTunes carries Audible's content in a different style "wrapper". Basically, if I download an audiobook from Audible, I can play it on any number of devices (including iTunes and Apple hardware). If I download an Audible audiobook from iTunes, I can play it on iTunes and Apple hardware. A Kindle format ebook will be readable on the Kindle, as well as Kindle-on-PC and Kindle-on-iPhone and so forth.
(7) Pricing still favors customers in the Kindle store, at least. Not only will it more limited in use, but you'll pay more for it. Early price prediction pits the iPad ebook pricing at $3-$5 dollars more per ebook. If people hate $9.99 as a price, how are they going to suddenly accept $12.99 or more as a price? As time goes on, Kindle prices are only going to go up (most likely), so this might not be as big of an issue later, but in the early stages, there will be some contention.
(8) The heart of ebooks seems to be in device based integration, not application based integration. As hinted at, earlier, ebooks have been around for a while but until the dedicated reader become more common parlance, failed to take off past the 2-3% range of acceptance. There's more to it (for one, Amazon bit a big bullet and shoved the concept of ebooks into the mainstream in other ways, too) but the fact remains that people seem more willing to approach ebook reading as a whole-unit, not a "application here, ebook folder there, device here" format.
(9) Distractions are bad for ebooks. As a closer against the concept of a Kindle Killer, I have to point out one inescapable failure of the multi-purpose HDI when it comes to ebook reading: distractions are horrible for ebooks. Try it out, go to Project Gutenberg, pick up a mid-length novel, and read it on your monitor without checking Facebook, Twitter, your stocks, your bank account, your e-mail, your instant messenger, your favorite gossip site, and so forth. Now imagine that the book you take with you has apps for all of those things. See how long you stay focused on the book. What's more, most descriptions of the iPad say that it won't have multi-task (i.e. multi-window) powers. This means, in order to get your Web 2.0 addictions squared away, you are going to have to close the book and then come back to it.
Of course, truth be told, there are reasons why the Kindle (and friends) might be about to be killed, and they are not exactly the reasons people are saying. I have picked the four more significant out:
- Kindle app on iPad might clear up the eBabel issue: Sure, the book sale goes to Amazon and not iTunes, but the Kindle as device might be undermined by the format availability. And people with large Kindle libraries might be more willing to just port over to the iPad rather than get a Kindle 3 whenever that device comes out.
- Gadget to user ratio maximum (GURM) leans towards multi-purpose gadgets: pocket books and time shares of attention both demand limiting the number of gadgets in your life. If someone has to pick just one, it seems like the multi-purpose gadget wins.
- Apple name-recognition: for better or worse, people know the Apple brand and they know the "iThing" format of names. Marketing is built in for the iPad while the Kindle is still coming around to public consciousness.
- The strange case of white- versus black-hats: finally, despite Apple's long issues with DRM (though some are fixed), needless format tinkering, censorship in their App-store, and reputation as a company dedicated to effete elites; for various reasons Amazon is often considered the big old scary evil black hat cowboy and Apple is talked about as being the white hat. If people assume the iPad is inherently good (and I do mean morally, here) in a way that the Kindle is not, the iPad will win sales from that.
What does the future hold? Who knows? My prediction, the iPad's first version will do little of anything in influencing ebooks, at least not really. It is going to have all the DRM issues the Kindle has, at a larger price, with a reading screen already in place with other ebook reading apps. The future? Well, we'll have to see what Amazon does to change the shape of its reader and what other tablets do. If Amazon thinks that the Kindle 2.3 is the top of the line and the end-all and be-all of it, well, it will eventually go away. If they find some more ways to continue to make the better knife, it will last a good decade or more. It just has to be a good knife. In the end, computers will become more like tablets and all connected, so we will run out of a place in our lives for a gadget that is not our "all-in-one Tab". Until then, I'd rather read on my Kindle.
Si Vales, Valeo
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