Online retail giant Amazon.com announced an electronic book (e-book) device today. The handheld reader, branded "Kindle," is already available on the Amazon.com website, with a price of $399 including two-day shipping; the website also promises immediate next-day delivery. Apparently, over 88,000 books on the Amazon website already provide "Kindle Editions," and newspapers and magazines are also available in the format. Rumors about the device have been circulating for over a year.
The device is said to be thinner than a typical paperback, weighing in at 10.3 ounces, and having a size of 7.5" x 5.3" x 0.7". According to the company, the 6" diagonal E-Ink electronic paper display has 600 x 800 pixels resolution at 167 dpi, with a 4-level gray scale. (In comparison, a typical laptop display has a dot pitch of about 90-100 dpi.) The electrophoretic display, developed through a partnership between E-Ink and Philips Components, involves the motion of dispersed particles ("electronic ink") relative to a fluid under the influence of an electric field. Insight Media is now in the process of developing a full market/technology report on e-paper technologies and applications, so feel free to contact us with information for this report.
According to Amazon, "Kindle provides a crisp black-and-white screen that resembles the appearance and readability of printed paper." The screen reflects light like ordinary paper and uses no backlighting, supposedly eliminating the glare associated with other electronic displays. As a result, Kindle should be readable in bright sunlight. According to CNET, Amazon had been looking to sign a deal for the launch so a hot book title could be bundled with the reader. New York Times Best Sellers and New Releases will be priced at $9.99 or less.
Connectivity is by means of EVDO—the same high-speed data network used in advanced cell phones—and a dedicated email address. The link utilizes the Amazon Whispernet to provide U.S wireless coverage via Sprint’s high-speed data network. (A USB interface and cable are also provided.) A built-in browser allows the user to shop Amazon’s Kindle Store and downloaded content. With no subscription or download fees, the device also includes wireless access to Wikipedia.org. Active battery life is said to be more than a week, but this drops to about two days when the wireless interface is left on. In low coverage areas or in 1xRTT-only coverage, wireless usage will consume battery power more quickly. Recharge time is two hours.
Other features of the device include 256MB internal memory, providing approximately 185MB for user content, resulting in a capacity of over 200 titles. An optional SD memory card slot supports up to 4GB SD memory cards. In addition to the proprietary Kindle format (AZW), support for various PC file formats (TXT, HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, MOBI, PRC) is provided (some by conversion utilities), as well as Audible and MP3 audio formats. A 3.5mm stereo audio jack and rear-mounted mono speaker provide sound capabilities.
Critics (this writer included) have mixed opinions on the device—with many predicting failure. For one, the barely-5" tall display will be challenged to show large-format material such as newspapers, which ironically, are said to be the area of greatest potential use. At this size, the unit seems too big to be conveniently carried, yet too small to provide a comfortable display, and some bloggers say the device is "amazingly ugly." In addition, the 4-bit gray scale (and presumed low display update rate) makes the device totally unsuitable for video. And at this price, users may instead opt for the latest iPod or iPhone, either of which provides more utility. E-books have been attempted several times before—with dismal results. Sony’s Sony Reader and its native-Japanese predecessor the LIBRIé have failed to get noticeable market results.
At the same time, Amazon’s marketing clout, together with various deals from big publishers, could instill enough curiosity to get beyond the gadget freaks. As we all know, the bottom line is price: make the unit cheap enough, and it is sure to attract a wide cross-section of buyers. But that means high volume, and Amazon may be challenged to generate enough sales to enter the mainstream with this device. The appeal of carrying electronic text probably awaits the arrival of a viable flexible-screen display—one that you can roll up and carry with you—but a durable solution is still unavailable. Will the Kindle affect Amazon stock prices? Last month, Amazon announced that third quarter sales were up 41% from the same period last year, and expects a record holiday season. Place your bets.